Dr Meritxell Huch
Stem cells and tissue regeneration
Dr Meritxell Huch is a Junior Group Leader at the Gurdon Institute.
After obtaining her PhD degree in Gene Therapy and pancreatic cancer at the Center for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain, she moved to the Netherlands to join the laboratory of Professor Hans Clevers at the Hubrecht Institute for Developmental Biology and Stem Cell Research in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in order to redirect the focus of her research into Adult Stem Cell Biology. In the first stage of her pos-doctoral research, she isolated, for the first time, the stem cells responsible for the rapid turnover of the adult stomach and proved that these adult stomach stem cells can be maintained and expanded in culture, forming “mini-stomachs” structures in vitro.
Then, she moved her research to the understanding of the role and replicative potential of liver progenitors during liver regeneration.
In adult mammals, self-renewal is required for the maintenance of tissue homeostasis and tissue repair. In organs with extensive self-renewal, such as the intestine and stomach, adult stem cell populations are constantly cycling to maintain cellular turnover. In organs with limited proliferative capacity, though, such as the liver or pancreas, we have recently described a population of stem/progenitor cells that become activated exclusively upon damage to repair the lost tissue and reinstall homeostasis. However, the mechanism that regulates the activation of the cells during regeneration, from the implication of the niche to the epigenetic mechanisms regulating this activation remains unsolved. One of our main goals is to understand the mechanism of adult tissue regeneration, using the liver and pancreas as model organs. Chronic liver disease and liver and pancreas cancer are highly associated to inflammation and tissue damage. Understanding the mechanism regulating these processes holds promise to extend our knowledge on tissue regeneration, disease and cancer.
We are also interested in tissue engineering and disease modelling. Despite the enormous regenerative capacity of the liver in vivo, liver cells have resisted expansion in culture. We have recently described a culture system (liver organoid culture) that allows, for the first time, the long-term (>1year) expansion of mouse liver stem/progenitor cells into 3D structures that we have termed “liver organoids”. In this novel culture system adult liver stem/progenitor cells maintain their ability of self-renewal and differentiation towards functional liver cells. When transplanted into a mouse model of liver disease (FAH-/- mice), the cultured cells partially rescued the liver phenotype, showing their therapeutic potential. We have observed similar results using adult pancreas tissue. Following on that discovery, we would now like to transfer this technology to the study of liver diseases with the aim of better understanding these and potentially finding better therapeutic strategies.