Lab livers to solve problem of transplant shortages
MADE-to-measure organs for transplantation are a step closer to reality after scientists successfully grew miniature human livers. The researchers created "working livers" the size of walnuts, which functioned normally in laboratory conditions.
They believe that in around five years they will be able to upscale the process and transfer the procedure from the laboratory to hospitals.
The development could eventually solve the transplant shortages problem and also remove the need for powerful drugs to prevent the body rejecting the organ.
"We are excited about the possibilities this research represents, but must stress that we're at an early stage and many technical hurdles must be overcome before it could benefit patients," said the project director, Associate Professor Shay Soker from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina.
"Not only must we learn how to grow billions of liver cells at one time in order to engineer livers large enough for patients, we must determine whether these organs are safe to use."
More than 600 liver transplants are carried out each year in Britain, but it is estimated that more than a fifth of patients die waiting. Many livers have to be discarded because they are too old or too damaged to be of any use.
The technology opens up the prospect of growing other replacement organs, including kidneys or pancreases, for patients who are able to donate stem cells.
The new technique works by chemically stripping the old liver down to its basic "scaffold" or exoskeleton, the new liver is then regrown on this frame using stem cells from the patient.
Stem cells from embryos could also be used.
Laboratory livers that were nourished by a special bioreactor for a week began growing and functioning like human organs, researchers said.
Liver disease is the fifth biggest killer in England and Wales, after heart disease, cancer, stroke and respiratory disease, and the only major cause of death that is still increasing.
Some 16,087 people in Britain died from liver disease in 2008, a 4.5pc increase on the previous year, and the number of deaths is predicted to double in 20 years.
Sarah Matthews, for the British Liver Trust, said: "Technology such as this is much needed. Supply isn't meeting demand, and for every one person who receives a liver transplant 10 people die.
"Expanding waistbands and heavy drinking habits are having an impact on the quality of donor organs available in the UK, therefore we desperately need developments in liver science.
"We are encouraged by these results but would like to warn patients that this technology is a good few years off from becoming available," she said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)