Researchers in Japan have used human stem cells to create tiny human livers like those that arise early in fetal life. When the scientists transplanted the rudimentary livers into mice, the little organs grew, made human liver proteins, and metabolized drugs as human livers do.
They and others caution that these are early days and this is still very much basic research. The liver buds, as they are called, did not turn into complete livers, and the method would have to be scaled up enormously to make enough replacement liver buds to treat a patient. Even then, the investigators say, they expect to replace only 30 percent of a patient’s liver. What they are making is more like a patch than a full liver.
But the promise, in a field that has seen a great deal of dashed hopes, is immense, medical specialists said.
“This is a major breakthrough of monumental significance,” said Dr. Hillel Tobias, director of transplantation at the New York University School of Medicine. Tobias is chairman of the American Liver Foundation’s national medical advisory committee.
The study was published on Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Although human studies are years away, said Dr. Leonard Zon, director of the stem cell research program at Boston Children’s Hospital, this, to his knowledge, is the first time anyone has used human stem cells, created from human skin cells, to make a functioning solid organ, like a liver, as opposed to bone marrow, a jellylike organ.
The investigators, led by Dr. Takanori Takebe of the Yokohama City University Graduate School of Medicine, began with human skin cells, turning them into stem cells. By adding various stimulators and drivers of cell growth, they then turned the stem cells into human liver cells and began trying to make replacement livers.
They say they stumbled upon their solution. When they grew the human liver cells in petri dishes along with blood vessel cells from human umbilical cords and human connective tissue, that mix of cells, to their surprise, spontaneously assembled itself into three-dimensional liver buds, resembling the liver at about five or six weeks of gestation in humans.