Researchers in Germany have been able to grow the inner-most layer of fallopian tube cells in the lab for the first time. Rather than using them to develop transplants for women, the lab-grown cells are instead intended to help scientists further their knowledge of how diseases and infection develop, and subsequently spread, from the tube into other parts of a woman’s reproductive system.
The fallopian tubes, also known as the oviducts, are only around 10 to 15 centimeters (4 to 6 inches) long and connect the ovaries to the uterus. Unfortunately, they are susceptible to chronic bacterial infection which, apart from potentially leading to infertility, is thought to potentially trigger the mutation of cells in the lining of the tubes. These transformed cells can then travel along the tubes and into the ovaries, leading in some cases to the development of ovarian cancer.
An image of the organoid in which the cells were able to culture. © MPI f. Infection Biology
But the fallopian tubes are obviously difficult to examine in a living person, meaning that early detection of pre-cancerous cells and infection arising in them is clearly very tricky. In light of such a situation, any research into how the conditions within them give rise to such infections and cancer are therefore of high value. Ordinarily, it is difficult to reproduce these conditions of the oviduct in the lab, further impeding the study of such infections and cancer.
The researchers of this new study, however, managed to get round this by taking stem cells derived from epithelial cells, or those found in the upper layer, from fallopian tube samples provided by donors, and cultivating them. What they found was that the cells naturally developed into what are known as “organoids,” hollow spheres formed of thousands of cells providing the exact right conditions for the fallopian cells to grow.
“[The formation of organoids] happened without any additional instruction whatsoever,” explains Dr. Mirjana Kessler, the first author of the study published in Nature Communications. “The entire blueprint of the fallopian tube must therefore be stored in the epithelial cells.” The researchers are interested in the inner layer of the fallopian tube, as they want to be able to understand why they are susceptible to infection, and how they potentially lead to ovarian cancer.
Not only have the researchers been able to grow the inner layer of the fallopian tubes, but they’ve also discovered the pathways that allowed the cells to continually renew themselves. “That is a huge advantage,” says Dr. Kessler. “Previously available models could only keep fallopian tube epithelial cells alive for a few days. The ability to maintain the tissue-specific stem cells in culture, so they continuously replenish the cells means that these organoids can serve as research objects for much longer.”
This new advancement, and the discovery of being able to make the cells persist for long periods of time, will hopefully shed some light on how bacterial infections and cancer develops and spreads from the fallopian tubes.