Lab-grown adrenal glands could help treat hormone-related conditions

Functional adrenal glands have been grown in the lab by coaxing a type of stem cell to develop in a certain way by constantly tweaking the mix of chemicals they are bathed in

Tiny human adrenal glands similar to those found in 4-month-old fetuses have been grown from stem cells in the lab for the first time. The achievement may help to develop treatments for conditions in which these glands don’t function properly.

Previous attempts to grow small versions of the glands from induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells – adult cells that have been coaxed to revert to a form where they have the potential to develop into almost any cell type – have failed to create something similar to the glands found in the body.

Now, Kotaro Sasaki at the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues have grown IPS cells derived from the blood of three people into adrenal glands that are roughly 2 millimetres wide.

The lab-grown glands contained all the major cell types and features found in the glands of a fetus in the second trimester of pregnancy. The pattern of gene activity was also similar between lab-grown glands and the fetal ones. What’s more, the lab-grown glands produced the stress-linked hormone cortisol, as well as pregnenolone, a molecule that the body uses to make many hormones, including testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone.

“Our adrenal glands have pretty much everything you’d see in that of a fetus during early development,” says Sasaki. “As adrenal glands produce many criti