After 40 years of trying to grow liver cells in a laboratory, scientists from Cambridge University believe that they have finally succeeded, opening up a whole new arena for future treatment possibilities.
During the study, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council (MRC), small samples of skin were taken from the arms of seven patients suffering from genetic liver disease. Skin from the arms of three healthy people were used as the control.
The scientists were able to manipulate cells from the skin into a type of stem cell called induced pluripotent stem cell (IPS). They were then reprogrammed to generate liver cells that duplicated the liver disease inherited by the patients in the study.
In this groundbreaking research the scientists have been able to avoid the controversial use of human embryonic stem cells. While embryonic stem cells are believed to be the most powerful type of cell, the cells used in this study taken from skin samples delivered results that were just as good.
Stem cells are like the master key for unlocking cures in the human body. Scientists are continually trying to find ways of being able to grow new organs, fix spinal cords and mend hearts and brain cells lost through stroke, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
By managing to mimic the liver cells the scientists can test new therapies on a range of liver diseases, designed specifically for each patient. The liver cells grown in the laboratory hold the same genetic markers as the patient's disease.
The scientists have also been researching cell-based therapy, in which cells from a patient with a genetic liver disease are cured and then transplanted back into the patient.
With over 29,000 people dying of liver disease in the United States alone, there is an increasing need for liver donors and the scientists hope that patients, using this technique, will someday be able to grow their own liver. Using a patient's own stem cells would eliminate the risk of a new organ being rejected.
“We know that given the shortage of donor liver organs alternative strategies must urgently be sought.