With a shortage of organ donors when it comes to treating end-stage organ failure, scientists have been in search of a way to produce organs using human stem cells. Researchers in Japan have recently had great success creating tiny human livers, similar to those present in early fetal life.
Afte being transplanted into mice, the livers continued to grow, produce human proteins and metabolise drugs, tasks that a fully-functioning would also be capable of carrying out.
Researchers caution that the research is still in the very early stages, and unlikely to reach a point where the “liver buds” could be used to replace an entire organ. Instead they could be used to “patch up” a damaged liver, replacing about 30% of a normal human liver.
Even though this may seem not all that useful, it’s a field of research that tends to turn up very little in the way of results or progress. That in itself makes these recent findings a huge success, and something that can be built on for future studies.
This is especially true when you consider stem cells have only been used to replace things such as bone marrow in the past, a relatively simple thing to reproduce when compared with a fully-functioning organ.
Even if the liver buds never fulfil their clinical promise, they still could be enormously important for pharmaceutical research. Liver cells are normally taken from cadavers and grown in petri dishes, but liver buds could be a big improvement and offer a large supply of rudimentary livers for testing.
Either way, it’s a significant step forward in this field of research and could the be the first step towards organs that are grown entirely using stem cells.