WEDNESDAY, July 19, 2017 -- Researchers say they were able to coax tiny "seeds" of liver tissue into fully functioning livers in mice.
If this approach works in people, it could help reduce long wait lists for liver transplants. It might also benefit people with failing livers who don't quality for liver transplants, according to the researchers.
The scientists placed three types of liver cells -- the seeds -- into biodegradable tissue scaffolds. They then implanted those scaffolds in mice with damaged livers. Once inside the mice, the tiny structures grew 50-fold and were able to perform normal liver tissue functions.
"There are just not enough organs to go around. Our goal is that one day we could use this technology to increase the number of transplants that are done for patients, which right now is very limited," said senior author Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia. She's a professor of health sciences and technology and electrical engineering and computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
More than 17,000 Americans are waiting for liver transplants. Millions have chronic kidney disease, such as cirrhosis and hepatitis, but don't qualify for a liver transplant, the researchers said.
"These patients never really are transplant candidates, but they suffer from liver disease, and they live with it their whole lives. In that population you could imagine augmenting their liver function with a small engineered liver, which is an idea we're pretty excited about," Bhatia said in an MIT news release.
The researchers said the cells for these procedures could come from livers that weren't able to be transplanted. They could also come directly from the liver of the people who need the transplanted cells. If this method is successful, drugs that suppress the immune system wouldn't be needed.
However, this study so far has only been successful in mice. Research that looks promising in animals doesn't always pan out in people.
The study was published July 19 in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
The American Liver Foundation has more on liver disease.
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