Scientists grow working, miniature livers

Researchers say they've successfully grown small, functional human livers. But don't plan on picking up your shiny new manufactured liver just yet.


Let's just say it's a good thing this breakthrough didn't come around when I was in my early twenties, or I may have been tempted to spend a little more time at my favorite neighborhood watering hole.

Scientists at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center say they've successfully used human liver cells to create miniature livers that function like their larger, more naturally derived counterparts.

Using a process called decellularization, the team rinsed real livers from an unspecified animal with detergent, stripping them of all their cells and leaving only a collagen-based structure behind. They then introduced two types of cells--immature human liver cells and endothelial cells that line blood vessels--via a system of tiny vessels in the liver. The livers were then placed in a bioreactor that flooded them with nutrients and oxygen. After a week had passed, the team saw that new, functional liver tissue had grown within that biological "scaffolding."

Despite the success of the project, the researchers were quick to caution that their work is a long way from making its way into any sort of human treatment. For one thing, the manufactured livers have only been tested in the lab. Whether they'll function as well when transplanted into an animal's body is yet to be seen. There is also the challenge of making a similar organ large enough for human use.

"We are excited about the possibilities this research represents, but must stress that we're at an early stage and many technical hurdles must be overcome before it could benefit patients," said Shay Soker, professor of regenerative medicine and the project's director. "Not only must we learn how to grow billions of liver cells at one time in order to engineer livers large enough for patients, but we must determine whether these organs are safe to use in patients."

Still, the news is encouraging. And while it's not the first time organ tissue has been manufactured in a lab, it is the first time a functional human liver has been created, according to the team's statement. The results, they say, could have eventual implications not only for people with liver disease, but also for those needing other organs that are in chronic short supply, such as kidneys or pancreases.

The research was presented yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases in Boston.