Scientists have repaired a damaged liver in a mouse by transplanting stem cells grown in the laboratory.
It is the first time researchers have restored function to a severely damaged liver in a living animal using stem cells.
Their findings could pave the way for cell-based therapies that one day replace the need for liver transplants.
Researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh transplanted liver stem cells into mice with liver failure.
They found that over several months, major areas of the liver were regrown from these cells, improving the structure and function of their livers.
The liver has the greatest capacity to repair itself of any organ in the body. In conditions such as cancer, cirrhosis and acute liver failure, however, it can become damaged beyond repair.
Cells found in the liver called hepatocytes have been used for transplantation. However, their use has been limited because they don’t grow well under laboratory conditions.
Stem cells from the liver can be grown under laboratory conditions. They also have the flexibility to change into other important types of liver cells as well as hepatocytes.
This is the first time that researchers have proven that liver stem cells can regrow the liver to such an extent.
Revealing the therapeutic potential of these liver stem cells brings us a step closer to developing stem cell based treatments for patients with liver disease. It will be some time before we can turn this into reality as we will first need to test our approach using human cells.
The researchers are now exploring whether human liver stem cells behave in the same way.
If so, transplanting such cells into patients with liver failure could one day offer an alternative to liver transplants.
In the long term, scientists hope to find a way of stimulating the patient’s own stem cells to repair the damaged liver using medicines.
This research has the potential to revolutionise patient care by finding ways of co-opting the body’s own resources to repair or replace damaged or diseased tissue.
The research was funded by the Medical Research Council, the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform and the Wellcome Trust. It is published in the journal Nature Cell Biology.