By Fiona Macrae
Transplant patients could grow their own livers as scientists turn skin into organ cells
Desperately ill transplant patients could be able to ‘grow their own’ livers within just five years, British doctors said today.
The announcement follows a landmark study in which Cambridge University researchers turned slivers of skin from patients’ arms into liver cells.
Scaled up, the technique could be used to generate full-sized livers, each a perfect match to the patient.
The breakthrough, which comes amid soaring rates of liver disease, will also hasten the search for new drugs for a condition which kills more Britons each year than diabetes and traffic accidents combined.
The experiments involved taking slivers of skin from patients with inherited liver diseases and using a cocktail of chemicals to turn them into stem cells, ‘master cells’ able to turn into other cell types.
The stem cells were then coaxed into becoming liver cells.
Researcher Dr Tamir Rashid likened the change from skin to liver cell to persuading a group of musicians to play a different type of music.
He said: ‘It is a bit like getting an orchestra to change from playing classical music to rock music.
The lab-grown liver cells carry the genetic hallmarks of the patients’ diseases. Comparison with healthy cells will allow researchers to find out more about the causes of their illness.
Patches of diseased cells could also be used to rapidly test hundreds of thousands of drugs, speeding up the search for new treatments and cutting the need for animal experiments.
The Cambridge team is also trying to ‘fix’ the diseased cells, with the eventual aim of transplanting healthy cells into the patients.
Dr Rashid said: ‘One approach is to grow patches of liver.
‘The other approach is what we talk about in science fiction but is rapidly become more of a reality – reproducing the whole organ and putting it back.
‘I don’t expect us to be able to offer that for five to 10 years. We have to be absolutely sure before we do that.’
Hurdles to overcome include creating a liver with all the types of cells needed for full function, including specialised cells that destroy bacteria and other invaders.
Cells taken from human livers are notoriously difficult to work with the laboratory and scientists have searched for decades for an alternative supply.
The technology to turn skin cells into liver cells has been available for several years but this is the first time it has been used successfully on people with liver disease.
Using a person’s own cells would remove the risk of the new organ being rejected by the body.
More than a million Britons are living with liver disease and 16,000 die a year. Soaring rates of obesity, binge drinking and hepatitis mean the number of deaths is predicted to double in just 20 years.
Professor Humphrey Hodgson, of the British Liver Trust, said: ‘We welcome this new research from Cambridge University, with a further refinement of the techniques which should lead to stem cell therapy becoming a reality for liver disease; and the approach of this team has particular potential for further exploration and understanding of genetic causes of liver disease and aid development of therapies.
The study, which is reported in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council.