Transplanting tiny 'liver buds' constructed from human stem cells restores liver function in mice, researchers have found. Although preliminary, the results offer a potential path towards developing treatments for the thousands of patients awaiting liver transplants every year. The liver buds, approximately 4 mm across, staved off death in mice with liver failure, the researchers report this week in Nature1. The transplanted structures also took on a range of liver functions — secreting liver-specific proteins and producing human-specific metabolites. But perhaps most notably, these buds quickly hooked up with nearby blood vessels and continued to grow after transplantation.
The results are preliminary but promising, says Valerie Gouon-Evans, who studies liver development and regeneration at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “This is a very novel thing,” she says. Because the liver buds are supported by the host’s blood system, transplanted cells can continue to proliferate and perform liver functions. However, she says, the transplanted animals need to be observed for several more months to see whether the cells begin to degenerate or form tumours. There is a dire scarcity of human livers for transplant. In 2011, 5,805 adult liver transplants were done in the United States. That same year, 2,938 people died waiting for new livers or became too sick to remain on waiting lists. However, attempts to create complex organs in the laboratory have been challenging. Takanori Takebe, a stem-cell biologist at Yokohama City University in Japan who co-led the study, believes this is the first time that people have made a solid organ using induced pluripotent stem cells, which are created by reprogramming mature skin cells to an embryo-like state.