A recent discovery may lead to the development of a cell-based regenerative therapy for restoring thyroid function in cancer patients after thyroidectomy and in children born with congenital hypothyroidism. The new findings were described in Cell Stem Cell (2015; doi:10.1016/j.stem.2015.09.004).

“This research represents an important step toward the goal of being able to better treat thyroid diseases and being able to permanently rescue thyroid function through the transplantation of a patient’s own engineered pluripotent stem cells,” explained co-corresponding author Anthony N. Hollenberg, MD, chief of the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.

“Until now, we haven’t fully understood the natural process that underlies early thyroid development,” said co-corresponding author Darrell N. Kotton, MD, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine (CReM) at the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and Boston Medical Center and professor of medicine and pathology at BUSM. “With this paper, we’ve identified the signaling pathways in thyroid cells that regulate their differentiation, the process by which unspecialized stem cells give rise to specialized cells during early fetal development.”

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After deciphering this natural differentiation process, the investigators duplicated it in the laboratory dish by adding a sequence of proteins (growth factors) to the fluid bathing the stem cells. The team then used murine pluripotent stem cells to regenerate thyroid function in a murine model of hypothyroidism. Next, they adapted this method using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) engineered from children with congenital defects that prevent their thyroids from fully developing.

Hypothyroidism results when the thyroid gland produces too little thyroid hormone, which impairs metabolism and may cause slowed heart rate, weight gain, and chronic symptoms of feeling cold and tired with decreased mental acuity.

Although drugs are available to replace thyroid function, with this new discovery, “we can now envision that thyroid function could be restored by transplanting patients’ own thyroid cells,” said Hollenberg and Kotton.