Pig cells could be used to tackle acute liver failure in people

British Association's science conference
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Sufferers of acute liver failure may soon be able to use an artificial organ stored in liquid nitrogen, the British Association's science conference in Glasgow was told yesterday.

A team at the University of Strathclyde has created a system of sheets coated with pig-liver cells which can be used to clean human blood with little adverse reaction. The next step will be to discover the cells within the human liver which allow it to regenerate when damaged; these "stem cells" could be used to grow an "immortal" line of cells for future treatment, said Dr Helen Grant, who is leading the research effort.

However, it could be many years before an artificial liver is implanted into patients; the present solution, kidney dialysis, is external. "Growing three-dimensional structures is very difficult," said Professor Tom Hardingham, of the University of Manchester. "Making two-dimensional objects is easier."

The liver carries out a huge range of functions in the body – principally removing waste products and generating red blood cells – and the demand for transplants and treatments is intense. "Many patients with acute liver disease die while waiting for transplants," said Dr Grant. But she pointed out that the liver has a remarkable ability to regenerate itself. "If their livers could be allowed to rest during the acute phase of their illness, then the cells could recover, if enough have survived," she said.

That makes the artificial liver a potential life-saver. Dr Grant's team is using pig-liver cells because they are easily available – and live human liver cells are hard to come by as they are needed so much for transplants.

Pigs are anatomically similar to humans, and in tests the team has found that using pig rather than human cells does not materially affect the cleaning effect on the blood.

The Strathclyde team has also done work on producing an artificial pancreas, and has a number of patients who have survived for more than two years without insulin injections.

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