The human liver has a miraculous ability to repair itself. Except for when it matters.
As the second largest organ in the body, the liver has a wide array of functions, including fighting infections, removing toxins, and releasing bile. When the liver is shut down, most likely due to factors such as obesity or excessive drinking, there are fatal consequences.
In the UK, adults with liver failure will have to wait around 145 days for a transplant. Usually the liver has enormous regenerative potential from its hepatocytes, the main type of cell in the organ, being capable of re-growing itself even if half of the liver is removed. But this ability plummets from conditions such as cirrhosis and acute liver failure, a pattern that occurs with all forms of severe liver injury.
However, a team at the University of Edinburgh has managed to use stem cells from the biliary duct to repair damaged livers that were beyond self-repair. By injecting the cells into mouse livers, the team saw a near complete regeneration over several months, restoring not only structure but also function.
The stem cells, grown in a lab, can change into other types of liver cells and nurture major areas of the liver. The team suggests that this breakthrough could also fight blindness, Parkinson’s disease, and arthritis.
Professor Stuart Forbes, one of the researchers in the study, says that liver transplants will still be the predominant option for patients, but “the big aim would be to develop a clinically applicable cell therapy for patients with severe liver failure where transplantation is not an option.” Their next step will be to repeat their results using human tissue.