Progress made towards liver tissue implants

Progress made towards liver tissue implants

Early-stage progress towards developing human liver tissue implants has been made, after scientists transformed stem cells into 3D human liver tissue.

The cells showed promising support of the liver function when implanted into mice with a liver disease.

The scientists – from UK Research and Innovation's Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh – say that in addition to being early-stage progress towards developing human liver tissue implants, it could also reduce the need for animals in research by providing a better platform to study human liver disease and test drugs in the lab.

Liver disease is currently the fifth biggest killer in the UK, and the only major cause of death still increasing year-on-year.

In the study, human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells (adult cells that have been induced to turn back into stem cells) were carefully stimulated to develop the characteristics of liver cells, called hepatocytes. The scientists grew these cells as small spheres in a dish for over a year.

“This is the first time anyone has kept stem cell-derived liver tissue alive for more than a year in the lab,” said Professor David Hay, from the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine. “Keeping the cells alive and stable as liver cells for a long time is a very difficult step, but crucial if we hope to use this technology in people.”

The scientists then collaborated with materials chemists and engineers to identify suitable polymers already approved for use in humans in order to develop them into 3D scaffolds. 

Professor Hay added: “Bringing together biologists, chemists and engineers, helped us to develop our new polymer scaffolds for lab-grown liver cells and we’re excited that the implants successfully aided liver function. We hope implants like these may one day be able to help people with failing livers. Placing the scaffolds under the skin has the big advantage of being less invasive and potentially safer than inserting tissue grafts into the abdomen.”

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Further information

Read more on the MRC website