How to Repair a Human Liver

May 3, 2023
Science Magazine

Written by Prakrit Mittal, this article was selected as a winner of our 2023 High School Science Communication Challenge. Mittal is a student at Dubai College in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.                                   

The liver plays a crucial — and extremely varied — role in the body. This organ is responsible for many vital functions such as detoxification (removing harmful substances, such as drugs and toxins, from the body), metabolism (converting food into energy to maintain bodily functions), and blood clotting (the process by which liquid blood changes into semisolid blood clots to prevent blood loss from damaged blood vessels). Despite the liver’s importance, there is unfortunately a shortage of liver donors, leaving people who need a new liver waiting a long time before finding a suitable match. To address this problem, researchers supported by the NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre have been developing an alternative to liver transplants.                                         

One of the main reasons someone may need a liver transplant is malfunctioning bile ducts, which act as the organ’s waste disposal system. In fact, the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute has found that 70% of liver transplants in children and a third of transplants in adults are due to problems with the bile ducts. To tackle this issue, the researchers used a technique to grow new ‘mini-bile ducts’ in the lab.

Above: Anatomy of the liver, including the bile duct. Courtesy of the Cleveland Clinic.

The researchers discovered that biliary cells from the human gallbladder could be converted into functional bile duct cells to replace and repair damaged ones in patients with liver damage. They used this technique to grow new ducts in the lab, which they then transplanted into mice with damaged bile ducts. The mice were able to produce bile normally, showing that the new ducts were functioning properly.                    

This experiment marks the first time that scientists have been able to repair damaged human bile ducts in the lab, which could be a game-changer for people who need liver transplants. Using this technique to grow new ducts may lead to less competition for the small number of suitable donor livers because some patients with problems in their ducts can use artificial ones instead of ones from donors. This alternative makes it easier for people without a problem in their bile ducts but who still require a new liver to receive the transplant they need.

Above: Surgeons inject cells into a liver. Courtesy of Nature.        

The study’s researchers also believe that their experimental approach could be applied to a range of organs and diseases, further accelerating cell-based therapy research. By being able to grow new cells in the lab, future researchers could develop new treatments for a wide range of conditions. For example, scientists could use this technique to repair damaged pancreas tissue in people with diabetes or grow new heart cells for people with heart disease. Such innovative treatments could revolutionize the way we treat many different conditions, giving hope to people who are currently living with chronic diseases.    

The discovery that biliary cells from the human gallbladder can be converted into bile duct cells to replace and repair damaged livers is an exciting breakthrough in medical research. By accelerating cell-based therapy research, this discovery could lead to the development of new treatments that could revolutionize the way we treat many different conditions.

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