Mar 2015

Liver failure: the promise of stem cells

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As March makes its exit — like a lion in some regions, like a lamb in others — it’s good to remember that it marked “Liver Health Month,”an initiative to raise awareness of liver diseases. Each year the  Canadian Liver Foundation, a national not-for-profit organization established in 1969 to support liver research and education, devotes this month to spreading information about liver health to Canadians.

Liver is the largest solid organ and the biggest reservoir of blood in the body, critical for maintaining overall health. It metabolizes nutrients, removes waste products, filters toxic substances and drugs, maintains the levels of blood sugar, fat and hormones and participates in immune responses.

Hepatocytes are the predominant cell type in the liver and they perform most of its functions. However, their short lifespan requires the liver to constantly regenerate itself in order to remain healthy.

It is estimated that one in 10 Canadians, or around 3 million people, have some form of liver disease. There are over 100 different kinds of liver diseases and the most common forms are viral hepatitis, fatty liver disease and liver cancer. Causes range from alcohol consumption, viruses, obesity, genetics, autoimmune diseases, drugs, toxins.

Liver disease can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms can be vague or non-existent until the disease has advanced. Although the liver can continue to function despite a great deal of abuse, once it reaches a state of failure the damage is irreversible.

Currently, the only available treatment is transplantation, but the demand for organs is so high that many people with liver failure die before receiving a donation. While there is no stem cell treatment for liver failure as of yet, stem cells could one day represent a reliable option. Many research teams around the globe are working on developing effective stem cell therapies for liver failure.

In 2013, researchers from Yokohama City University in Japan demonstrated they could produce liver buds, or miniature precursors to human livers, by using stem cells taken from bone marrow, blood vessels and skin cells. When the researchers implanted the buds into the brains of mice, they observed that they connected with the mouse’s blood system. After a couple of months the buds looked and acted like liver and produced liver-specific proteins.

The scientists believe the research is promising, but challenging and it will take to translate this work into a way of growing new livers for patients.

“Testing whether liver buds could help sick patients is years away,” said Professor Takanori Takebe, who led the researchin Nature. “Apart from the need for longer-term experiments in animals, it is not yet possible to make liver buds in quantities sufficient for human transplantation.”

In the meantime, you can find more information about stem cells and liver failure in our Toward Treatments section. Click here to read more.

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