Extract from full article yet to be peer reviewed. Link to full article at the end.
"This is a model system that has a lot of potential in a number of different ways," Davies said. "First, it can teach us about the differentiation of the thyroid gland and how the thyroid gland develops. Second, it can be used for screening of drugs to look for effects on human thyroid cells."
Davies said his group currently has a program for developing molecules for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes, with two lead candidates published this month in Thyroid. Some of these uses include helping radioiodine to get into metastases, as well as replacing recombinant TSH when assessing patients with thyroid cancer.
"These molecules can also be used to aid the differentiation of thyroid cells, so these two programs come together," Davies said.
Ultimately, the goal is to build a working thyroid that can replace a diseased one. Although this is still many years away, he acknowledged, it does promise the opportunity to personalize treatment.
"You can take stem cells from each individual, differentiate them into thyroid cells, and replace a damaged or removed thyroid gland," he said.
Bryan Haugen, MD, of the University of Colorado in Denver, who was not involved in the study, expressed some cautions about forcing cells to overexpress genes.
"When you manipulate a gene and overexpress it, now it's no longer recapitulating normal biology," Haugen said. "You've forced something that could make it aggressive or possibly turn it into a cancer, versus doing something try to follow the natural progression and activate it more naturally."
"This is a bit of an artificial system," he added, "but the good thing is that the way it's set up, it looks very promising for making normal thyroid follicular cells."
Haugen also added that the work can help researchers better understand thyroid biology and pathophysiology. "It's a new, very useful tool for our field. We can have a model of thyroid development to see where things can go right and where they can go wrong."
Davies said his next steps include turning the working thyroid follicles into an actual gland. "We're using structural supports to try and develop a larger in vitro thyroid gland, then get them transplanted into mice."
He and his team are also further developing their small molecule program, to find candidates that can activate thyroid cell differentiation and be used for other applications.