“Engineered colons” for cancer research
Bioengineering has come a long way in the past few years. Organic is so passe. GMO’s are mainstream. What’s the next controversy?
A recent hot topic you may have seen online is the idea of engineering ready-to-eat meat right in the research lab. Proponents tout it as a humane way to get us the protein we crave without the traditional pitfalls of livestock farming and processing. Maybe. But maybe we also have a long way to go as a species before we can trust ourselves to not take shortcuts — shortcuts that seem to inevitably occur when humans are responsible for far-reaching issues of importance. Maybe we can start with bioengineering on a smaller scale. Sure, it’s not perfect here either, but the results are confined to research models and laboratories–not cut loose to permeate the human body, replace millenia-old ways of doing things, and potentially take us to a place we can’t come back from.
In a recent article in Nature Biotechnology, scientists describe an “artificial colon” using recellularization of human colonic tissue with genetically engineered cells. Further testing confirmed that this recellularized colon model is capable of replicating key features of colorectal cancer (CRC) progression. The work even identified 38 driver (disease-carrying) genes, including six that had not been previously implicated in CRC progression.
Michael Huler, Professor of Engineering and co-senior author of the paper, described his team’s work as “powerful.” Dr. Shuler admitted that while it’s impossible to say the model provides an exact replica of CRC progression inside the body, “it gives you a human-based system to characterize some of the key steps in advance-stage colon cancer, and that is something that hasn’t been possible.”
While it might not be as sexy as grilling a steak cultivated in a lab, it’s more helpful to more people, a more realistic scale on which to explore this technology, and a more practical start for this type of science. We look forward to this type of practical application of emerging biomedical sciences.