By manipulating protein-producing cells, scientists have successfully regenerated a living organ for the first time, according to the University of Edinburgh.

Working with laboratory mice, the researchers rebuilt the thymus, an immune cell-producing organ next to the heart. The team was able to reactivate a natural mechanism in the thymus that shuts down with age. Once the thymus was successfully regenerated, it regained the structure it would have if it were in a young mouse.

Writing in the journal Development, the research team suggests that their work could one day be used to advance new therapies for people with damaged immune systems and genetic conditions that affect thymus development.

"Our results suggest that targeting the same pathway in humans may improve thymus function and therefore boost immunity in elderly patients, or those with a suppressed immune system," said Clare Blackburn, a professor of tissue stem cell biology at Edinburgh. "However, before we test this in humans we need to carry out more work to make sure the process can be tightly controlled."

After regenerating the thymus, the mice's T-cell count improved. T-cells are a type of white blood cell important in fighting infections. At the time, however, it is still unclear whether the immune system of the mice improved.

One possible future application of the research could benefit people with DiGeorge syndrome, a genetic condition that causes the thymus to not develop properly.

"One of the key goals in regenerative medicine is harnessing the body's own repair mechanisms and manipulating these in a controlled way to treat disease," the Medical Research Council's head of regenerative medicine Rob Buckle said in a statement. "This interesting study suggests that organ regeneration in a mammal can be directed by manipulation of a single protein, which is likely to have broad implications for other areas of regenerative biology."