DURHAM, N.C. – researchers are employing 3D technology as a tool that could be used to fight lung disease.

Using human and animal cells, the scientists were able to create models of a single stem cell that can become two different types of cells. They believe their breakthrough will help lead to a better understanding of processes related to cancer and other diseases.

The model (see photo) shows ciliary and secretory cells (green) that form inside the basal stem cell (red). The stem cell divides to replenish the lung lining layer. The Duke scientists created 3-D hollow spheres that were lined inside with both ciliary and secretory cells.

The stem cells form ciliated cells that “sweep” airways clean and secretory cells that provide antibacterial and lubricating secretions. In healthy lungs, the two types of cells are arranged equally, according to Duke. By understanding the roles the cells play, the Duke scientists developed what they say is a new way of studying them.

"We put a lot of effort into developing this model, so that we and other groups can test the ability of individual airway progenitor cells to divide and differentiate under defined conditions," said Jason Rock, a postdoctoral associate in the Duke Department of Cell Biology. He was the lead author of the study.

"Now we can change the culture conditions to investigate mechanisms that underlie pathological conditions, including chronic asthma and cancer,” he said.

The in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.

"Now that we have this 3D model and information about the gene expression ‘signature’ of basal cells, we are in a strong position to see what happens when lung-cell behavior goes awry," said Brigid Hogan, chair of the Duke Department of Cell Biology. He was the senior researcher of the study.

"We might, for example, be able to activate an oncogene (a cancer-causing gene) or other factors to see how lung cancer might develop in the airways,” he added. “Amazingly, almost nothing is known about lung basal cells, which are so important to health and make up nearly a third of the cells in the human airways."