For the with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in the United States, pain, cramping, and diarrhea are routine. IBD is a set of conditions involving chronic inflammation of the digestive tract that costs the U.S. healthcare system nearly two billion dollars a year. Two of the most common IBDs are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.

Relief, however, may be in sight. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen have found a treatment far better than an antacid regimen: stem cells. And not just any stem cells: cells that grow naturally in the intestines.

Using a group of progenitor cells found in the intestines of mice, researchers have discovered a way to tailor the cell growth to repair colon injuries in the mice. These same cells are also found in humans.

It’s still too early to say which IBDs would respond best to this kind of therapy, but the possibilities could extend beyond colon repair to other bowel conditions, says study author Kim Jensen, M.D., an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Biotech Research and Innovation Centre.

“It will potentially be possible to use [these stem cells] for IBDs similar to the mouse model utilized,” Jensen says.

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The Blueprint Is in the Cells

All humans begin as just one cell, or zygote. That zygote then splits in half, and continues dividing and recombining until cells begin to specialize. A muscle cell, for example, looks and acts differently than a fat cell when it matures.

Blank, undifferentiated cells are called stem cells, and they are the building blocks of the entire human body. Nonembryonic stem cells can be used to repair the same part of the body in which they were found. Researchers used fetal intestinal stem cells from mice, which can also be found in humans.

If stem cell growth can be controlled, it could be possible to regrow any tissue a person might need, from intestinal lining to heart muscle.

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Plugging Holes in the Digestive System

To repair the colon, researchers examined a mouse embryo for developing tissue. They found a group of stem cells in the gut that could be grown in the lab for a long period of time and only specialize when introduced into a mature, damaged intestine.

“The cells can initially serve as a patch covering ulcerated regions to allow the intestine to heal,” Jensen says.

By using stem cells to grow these tissue grafts, researchers were able to create patches that helped protect the colon while it repaired itself.

“This is, in principle, a bulk standard stem cell therapy approach, using immature cells for the transplantation,” Jensen says.

While these findings are limited to mice, they’re particularly exciting because they “demonstrate that it is possible to achieve maturation following engraftment,” Jensen says. And a stem cell patch grown in a lab is specially tailored to the recipient, so his or her body is unlikely to reject it.

Before the patches are ready for human testing, more research is required to determine whether human intestinal stem cells behave the same way the mouse cells do, Jensen says.