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Scientists grow 'tiny livers' from human stem cells

"Tiny functioning human livers have been grown from stem cells in the laboratory," BBC News reports. This story is based on a study that used stem cells generated from adult human cells to grow a tiny "bud" of liver cells with its own blood vessels…

"Tiny functioning human livers have been grown from stem cells in the laboratory," BBC News reports.

This story is based on a study that used stem cells generated from adult human cells to grow a tiny "bud" of liver cells with its own blood vessels. Scientists successfully did this in the lab and found that the liver bud joined up with a mouse's blood system when it was transplanted. Once this happened, the transplanted liver bud could also perform some of the functions that a normal liver does, like breaking down drug molecules.

The human liver is a large organ with many essential functions and, while resilient, once it has received too much damage it can fail. For example, a leading cause of liver failure is prolonged alcohol abuse. Once liver failure occurs, the only current treatment option is a liver transplant. But the demand for donated livers far outstrips supply.

Researchers hope to one day grow replacement organs in the laboratory, ideally from a patient's own cells. This research is another step in this direction, but there is still a long way to go. The liver tissue grown in the current study was very small, and much more research is needed before it could be tested in humans.

 

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Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Yokohama City University Graduate School of Medicine and other research centres in Japan. It was funded by the Japan Science and Technology Agency, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan, the Takeda Science Foundation, the Japan IDDM network, and the Yokohama Foundation for Advanced Medical Science.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature, and was generally well reported in the media, with just a few issues of note.

The Daily Telegraph story suggests that: "Patients suffering from liver failure could be injected with tiny replacement organs grown from their own stem cells within the next 10 years following new research." Although promising, the research is still only at an early stage. So, it is difficult to know whether this "10-year" predication is realistic.

Also, the Daily Mail suggests that using this tissue to test new medicines will be able to prevent "disasters such as the 'Elephant Man' drug trial, in which six men were left fighting for their lives". But this type of liver tissue has not yet been used in drugs trials, so whether it could potentially be used in this way is not yet clear.

Even if it is does eventually become used for this purpose, it could not predict all drug side effects. For example, the "Elephant Man" trial mentioned by the Mail was thought to be related to an effect on the human immune system, not an effect on the liver.

 

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