Intestinal stem cell culture

Vivian Li : Stem Cell and Cancer Biology Laboratory

We use bowel as a model to study how stem cells are programmed to maintain a healthy organ and what goes wrong when cancer develops.

The cells lining the inside of the bowel are constantly being replenished, keeping the gut healthy and functioning correctly. This process depends on stem cells – specialised ‘immortal’ cells that keep multiplying, producing new stem cells and replacement lining cells.

We want to find out how these stem cells are controlled in healthy guts and what happens when they go wrong, leading to bowel cancer. We are particularly interested in a molecule called Wnt, which sends signals to the stem cells to keep them growing and multiplying properly. Overactive Wnt signals are found in many bowel cancers, causing the stem cells to grow out of control and form a tumour.

To find out more about Wnt signalling we are studying bowel stem cells growing in the lab in small three-dimensional clumps called organoids (also known as ‘mini-guts’), using gene editing techniques to alter the levels of Wnt and other important signalling molecules.

Our work is revealing more about the role of Wnt and stem cells in healthy guts, and also explaining what happens when bowel cancer develops. This will help develop tumour-specific drug for bowel cancer treatment. We also want to use our knowledge to grow replacement human gut tissue in the lab to use in organ transplants or for testing drugs.