College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine

Study reveals cells can be reprogrammed to repair severe liver injury

Fresh insights into how the liver repairs itself after damage could pave the way for new therapies, experts say.

Scientists have found that specialised cells called bile duct cells can take on features of normal liver cells to aid regeneration of damaged tissue.

Cell change

Bile duct cells – also found in the liver – normally regulate the secretion of bile, a fluid that helps break down fats from food.

Now, researchers have found they can reprogramme themselves to become another type of liver cell, called a hepatocyte.

Tissue repair

Hepatocytes are the main cell type found in the liver. They play a key role in cleaning out toxic substances from the blood stream.

When the liver is harmed, hepatocytes multiply themselves to repair the damage. If the injury is too severe, however, the cells cannot cope and they stop proliferating.

Reserve system

Scientists from the Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh developed a system to mimic this condition in mice.

They found that bile duct cells – also known as cholangiocytes – can serve as a back up to help repair damaged liver tissue by turning themselves into hepatocytes.

This is the first conclusive proof that bile duct cells can serve as an important back-up system to help repair damaged liver tissue. We think this back-up system is helping the liver to repair, but under severe strain it might not be enough.

Professor Stuart ForbesDirector of the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh

Therapy hope

Researchers say their findings pave the way to develop drugs that encourage bile duct cells to become hepatocytes in order to help repair liver tissue.

We’re hopeful that understanding the signals that trigger these cells to behave this way could lead to new therapies to help repair damage before the livers fail completely. We plan to test drugs that are already clinically approved for other conditions on human bile duct cells, to see if they can increase their regenerative capacity.

Professor Stuart ForbesDirector of the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh

Liver disease

Liver disease is the one of the top five causes of premature death in the UK. New treatments are urgently needed.

The study, published in the journal Nature, was funded by the MRC and the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform.

Related links

Journal article

MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine

Edinburgh Medical School