Could Stem Cells Help Diseased Livers Regenerate Once More?

The liver is the body’s only internal organ that is capable of self regeneration. Liver disease is the 5th leading cause of death in the EU, because once significant damage has been inflicted on the liver, the liver loses its natural ability to heal itself. 

For people suffering with liver disease, up until recently, their last hope at effective treatment has been a liver transplant. However stem cell-based therapy is being explored as a potential alternative treatment due to positive results in preclinical and clinical studies. Of course, there is still much research that needs to be conducted before the precise mechanisms with which stem cells can be utilised to treat liver disease are fully known, but presently, research is looking incredibly promising. 

Researchers have been able to successfully turn embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells into liver cells in a lab, and in July 2019, scientists at King’s College London used a single cell RNA sequencing to help identify a specific cell that might be able to regenerate liver tissue. If these cells do exist, liver failure could be treated without the need for a transplant. 

In their paper published in Nature Communications, the scientists identified a new form of cell, called a Hepatobiliary Hybrid Progenitor (HHyP), a cell that is formed early in our embryonic development. 

HHyP cells also exist in small quantities in adults, growing into the two main cell types that make up the adult liver – Hepatocytes and Cholangiocytes, thereby giving HHyP cells, stem cell like properties. In fact, the research team discovered that HHyP closely resembled those mouse stem cells that were able to repair mice livers after major damage. 

Dr. Tamir Rashid, the paper’s lead author, from the Centre for Stem Cells & Regenerative Medicine at King’s College London said of the findings:

“For the first time, we have found that cells with true stem cell like properties may well exist in the human liver. This in turn could provide a wide range of regenerative medicine applications for treating liver disease, including the possibility of bypassing the need for liver transplants.”

Their research continues, hoping to unlock the secret to how to convert pluripotent stem cells into HHyP cells, so that they can be transplanted into patients with liver disease, thereby allowing the patient’s own liver to regenerate, negating the need for a liver transplant. 

The liver is the organ responsible for digesting food and helping to rid the body of toxins, and it isn’t immune to damage. Liver disease can be either hereditary or caused by specific factors that damage the organ, for example through illness, through alcohol abuse or even through obesity. 

Over time, continuous damage to the liver can lead to cirrhosis, which in turn can eventually result in liver failure – a life threatening condition. 

Symptoms of liver disease

Sufferers of liver disease typically experience symptoms including (but not limited to): 

  • Jaundice – yellowing of the whites of the eyes and the skin
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Abdominal pain
  • Uncontrollable itching
  • Dark urine
  • Easily bruised
  • Chronic fatigue

Causes of liver disease

There is no one cause of liver disease, so many different factors can take their toll on the healthy functioning of the liver, such as: 

  • Infections caused by parasites or viruses can result in liver disease as they cause inflammation of the liver. Some of the most common liver infections are the Hepatitis viruses – Hep A, B and C. 
  • Autoimmune disease is where your body’s immune system believes the body itself is causing harm and attacks those areas it thinks are causing damage – the liver can be one such victim. 
  • Genetics can result in liver disease as genes inherited from either or both parents can cause a build up of toxins in the liver causing liver damage. Hereditary liver diseases include Wilson’s disease. 
  • Cancer is not selective, it can occur in any part of the body, the liver is not exempt. Damage caused by liver cancer can result in liver disease. 
  • Long term substance abuse such as alcohol misuse can cause liver disease. 
  • Being obese can cause liver disease, resulting in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. 

Treatment of liver disease

Knowing what is causing a patient’s liver disease is key to finding a suitable treatment, and available treatment for liver disease currently rests on the diagnosis. Some liver diseases can be treated easily through merely modifying one’s lifestyle, however others will require medication or surgery, because presently, the only treatment for liver disease that has progressed to liver failure is a liver transplant. 

Future application of stem cells to treat liver disease

Right now, researchers are looking to learn more about how stem cells in the liver regenerate healthy liver tissue, because once this is known, it might be possible to develop treatments that can utilise this natural ability to regenerate damaged liver tissue. 

Studies are also looking into the possibility of using a patient’s own bone marrow stem cells to remove damaged scar tissue from the liver. It’s early days, but the possibility of using stem cells to treat liver disease is there. 

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