Background: Although progenitor cells have been described in distinct anatomical regions of the lung, description of resident stem cells has remained elusive.
Methods: Surgical lung-tissue specimens were studied in situ to identify and characterize human lung stem cells. We defined their phenotype and functional properties in vitro and in vivo.
Results: Human lungs contain undifferentiated human lung stem cells nested in niches in the distal airways. These cells are self-renewing, clonogenic, and multipotent in vitro. After injection into damaged mouse lung in vivo, human lung stem cells form human bronchioles, alveoli, and pulmonary vessels integrated structurally and functionally with the damaged organ. The formation of a chimeric lung was confirmed by detection of human transcripts for epithelial and vascular genes. In addition, the self-renewal and long-term proliferation of human lung stem cells was shown in serial-transplantation assays.
Conclusions: Human lungs contain identifiable stem cells. In animal models, these cells participate in tissue homeostasis and regeneration. They have the undemonstrated potential to promote tissue restoration in patients with lung disease. (Funded by the National Institutes of Health.).