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About Sickkids
About SickKids

March 9, 2020

Intestinal intelligence: understanding how tiny gut projections arise could inform new treatments

The surface area of the human intestinal tract is approximately 430 square feet – about the size of a bachelor apartment! This surprisingly large surface area is due to the millions of tiny, finger-like projections (called villi and the even-tinier, hair-like microvilli) that line the length of the small intestine. These structures maximize the area available for nutrients to be absorbed into the bloodstream to sustain our nutritional requirements. If the villi are compromised, however, it can lead to serious conditions such as celiac disease, short bowel syndrome and intestinal failure.

High magnification image of villi in embryonic mouse intestine.

As outlined in a paper published today in the journal Developmental Cell, principal investigator Dr. Tae-Hee Kim, Scientist, Developmental & Stem Cell Biology program, The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and his team have made important discoveries about how the villi form during embryonic development in mice. In a process called Hedgehog signalling, embryonic mesenchymal cells in the developing intestine activate polarity genes and cluster together, guiding epithelial cells to form distinct villi. These findings could eventually inform the development of new therapies for a variety of intestinal diseases.

Dr. Tae-Hee Kim and Abilasha Rao-Bhatia, SickKids