Breakthrough could signal end of liver transplants

Research involving a mouse and lliver stem cells could end the need for transplants if same results work on humans. Picture: Jayne Wright
Research involving a mouse and lliver stem cells could end the need for transplants if same results work on humans. Picture: Jayne Wright
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A MAJOR breakthrough by city scientists could “revolutionise patient care” and pave the way for a future without liver 
transplants.

Researchers at Edinburgh University have repaired a damaged liver in a mouse using stem cells grown in the laboratory – the first time the organ has ever been restored in a living animal using the technique.

Work like this will give doctors powerful new tools to treat a range of diseases that have no cure

Dr Rob Buckle

Their groundbreaking findings pave the way for cell-based therapies that could one day replace the need for risky liver transplants.

The experiment saw a team from the university’s Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine transplant liver stem cells into mice with liver failure.

They found that, over a period of several months, major areas of the liver were regrown from these cells, improving the structure and function of the organs.

The results mark the first time researchers have proven that liver stem cells can regrow the liver to such an extent – and if they can show the same effect with human cells, liver transplants could become a thing of the past.

The liver has a great capacity to repair itself, but in conditions such as cirrhosis and acute liver failure, it becomes damaged beyond repair.

The organ’s essential cells – hepatocytes – make many 
proteins and break down toxins, and while they have been used for transplantation, their use has been limited as they don’t grow well under laboratory conditions.

But liver stem cells overcome this, as they can be grown in laboratories and have the flexibility to change into hepatocytes or other important types of liver cells depending on the need.

In the long term, scientists hope to find a way of stimulating a patient’s own stem cells to repair the damaged liver using medicines.

The latest work, funded by the Medical Research Council, the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform and the Wellcome Trust, is published in the latest edition of the journal Nature Cell Biology.

Experts said the breakthrough had the potential to “revolutionise patient care”, but Professor Stuart Forbes, of the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at Edinburgh University, warned it could be “some time” before it brought a halt to transplants.

He said: “Revealing the therapeutic potential of these liver stem cells brings us a step closer to developing stem cell-based treatments for patients with liver disease.

“It will be some time before we can turn this into reality as we will first need to test our approach using human cells.

“This is much needed as liver disease is a very common cause of death and disability for patients in the UK and the rest of the world.”

Dr Rob Buckle, director of science programmes at the MRC, said: “This research has the potential to revolutionise patient care by finding ways of co-opting the body’s own resources to repair or replace damaged or diseased tissue.

“Work like this, building upon a precise understanding of the underlying human biology and supported by the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform, will give doctors powerful new tools to treat a range of diseases that have no cure, like liver failure, blindness, Parkinson’s disease and arthritis.”

alistair.grant@edinburghnews.com