Cells freshly isolated from a human thymus and human pancreatic organoids growing in culture.

Paola Bonfanti : Epithelial Stem Cell Biology & Regenerative Medicine Laboratory

We are studying stem cells to understand more about how they work, discover how problems with stem cells lead to disease, and find out how we can use this knowledge to repair the body.

Our work is focused on epithelial cells – specialised ‘lining’ cells found on the inner and outer surfaces of the body, such as the gut and skin. Although they are very common, epithelial cells are complex and still partly unknown, with distinctive differences between cells in different parts of the body.

We want to know more about how epithelial cells are produced from self-renewing stem cells in various organs and how they specialise into different roles, applying this knowledge to develop cell-based therapies to repair or regenerate damaged or faulty organs in the body.

We are particularly interested in epithelial cells in the thymus, a gland located in the chest, on top of the heart, that produces infection-fighting immune cells. By growing thymus cells in the lab, we are investigating how epithelial cells create the right environment for making healthy immune cells. And we are also studying epithelial stem cells in the oesophagus (food pipe) to find out how they repair damage throughout life and discover what has gone wrong in serious inherited conditions where the oesophagus fails to develop properly.

Finally, we’re studying stem cells in the pancreas to find out how they generate insulin-producing cells, which could be one day used as a potential treatment for people with diabetes. And we are investigating new gene editing technology in lung stem cells, which could pave the way for new therapies for cystic fibrosis.