First step towards 'homegrown livers' to liver transplants

British scientists have taken the first step towards helping patients grow a new liver which, in the long term, could end the need for liver transplants.

British scientists have taken the first step towards helping patients grow a new liver which, in the long term, could end the need for liver transplants.

Work by a team at the Imperial College School of Medicine in London has found that stem cells, which have the potential to grow into any sort of organ or part of the body, can be taken from donors and used to help repair diseased or otherwise damaged liver tissue.

Professor Nick Wright, head of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's histopathology unit, one of the research leaders, said: "We may be able to stimulate liver regeneration using cells from the patient's own bone marrow. This would be particularly useful for patients whose livers have been damaged due to drug side effects, or through surgery to remove cancers that have spread to the liver, and where there is insufficient functioning liver remaining."

He said livers that are defective, possibly because of a faulty gene, could one day be repaired using stem cells that have been given a working gene. Ultimately, it may be possible to regenerate a new liver using the patient's own stem cells.

Writing in the science journal Nature, the team from the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, the Imperial College School of Medicine and the Royal Free Hospital noted that stem cells taken from men's bone marrow were able to lead to the production of new liver cells in nine female patients. Even just injecting the cells into the blood led to the growth of new liver tissue whose DNA showed that it originated from the male donors, the team discovered.

The research comes amid widespread criticism by many British scientists of the Government's failure to lift its ban on stem-cell research. Eighteen months have passed since the Blair administration said it would set up a working party to investigate the possible benefits and pitfalls of such research.

In the meantime, British scientists are not allowed to investigate embryo stem cells grown in Britain beyond a couple of weeks.

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