Tiny lab-grown thyroids hint at a new way to treat hypothyroidism

The thyroid, a small butterfly-shaped organ on the front of the throat, produces hormones that are vital for health — and, sadly, the same organ is prone to various issues ranging from autoimmune hypothyroidism to thyroid cancer. Various types of damage and diseases can cause thyroid hormone production to drop, a problem currently treated with synthetic hormones.

Though many people who have hypothyroidism or who have had their thyroids removed are able to adequately replace the lost hormone production by taking synthetic thyroid hormone every day. However, a percentage of these patients struggle to maintain adequate thyroid hormone levels and/or report side effects from the treatment.

The International Society for Stem Cell Research reports that scientists have, for the first time, grown 'mini thyroids' in a lab, ones capable of producing thyroid hormones in their cultured, mature form. The mini thyroids were grown using patients' own thyroid tissue.

The researchers describe the lab-grown thyroids as 'preliminary proof' that this technology may be able to produce replacement thyroid material as a novel way to treat hypothyroidism and select other thyroid issues. That evidence is based on transplants into mice that had hypothyroidism.

The mouse transplant experiment revealed mice that received the transplanted lab-grown thyroid tissue had an increase in serum hormone levels and ultimately lived longer than the mice that weren't given tissue transplants. Though more research is necessary, the findings indicate that labs may be able to use a human patient's own thyroid tissue in the future to grow them a replacement when necessary.