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Researchers Making Artificial Liver a Reality

Jun 03, 2013 06:50 AM EDT
liver cells
MIT researchers have generated mature liver cells from induced pluripotent stem cells. In this image, the cell nuclei are stained blue. The green stain identifies liver cells, and the red stain identifies cells that are actively dividing.
(Photo : IMAGE: SHAN ET AL, NATURE CHEMICAL BIOLOGY, 2013/ MIT news release)

Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and colleagues have found a way to regenerate functional liver cells.

It is known that the liver can re-grow some of its lost parts. However, getting liver tissue to regenerate in a lab setting has not been possible yet because liver cells quickly lose their function outside the body.

"It's a paradox because we know liver cells are capable of growing, but somehow we can't get them to grow" outside the body, said Sangeeta Bhatia, a member of MIT's Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science and an author of the study, according to a news release.

Now, researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology have identified a dozen compounds that can help liver tissues grown in the lab to maintain regular function and reproduce.

Researchers say that their discovery could help millions of people who suffer from chronic liver diseases.

The liver has 500 functions that can be divided into four categories: drug detoxification, energy metabolism, protein synthesis and bile production.

For the study, researchers screened thousands of compounds that could aid regeneration of liver cells in the lab, and ultimately zeroed in on 12 of them.

Two of these compounds seemed to work better on young donors, so the research team led by Jing (Meghan) Shan, a graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology tested these compounds on liver cells generated from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are adult cells that have been manipulated back into an embryonic stem cell stage. Previously, researchers had tried to derive liver cells from iPSCs, but had failed. However, researchers in the present study could generate liver cells from these iPSCs after treating them with the compound.

The research team will now be testing whether or not liver tissue can be replaced in mice with artificial tissue by embedding the treated tissue on polymer mesh and implanting them in mice.

Also, Bhatia and colleagues have already gotten close to solving another problem of transplanting artificial liver in the body - getting the body to supply blood to the new tissue. In a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April, the team has shown that performed cords of endothelial cells, when embedded into the tissue, readily develop into arrays of blood vessels after the tissue in placed in the body.

The study is published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

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