PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — In a dish sits a human liver.
Not removed from a person, but created from scratch.
“It’s not like ‘wahoo’ and the next morning you think, ‘ah, I’m gonna make a human liver,'” says Dr. Alejandro Soto-Gutiérrez of the Pittsburgh Liver Research Center.
It took five years of trial and error but using stem cells, genetic and tissue engineering, organ cultures and a team of experts in these areas, the researchers have come up with this.
Alexandra Collin de L’hortet, Ph.D. of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine explains the process.
A rat liver gets stripped of its cells so that only the connective tissue remains.
From a small piece of human skin, the scientists pluck out stem cells and coax them into becoming human liver cells and the cells are collected.
Then they’re injected into the chamber, called a bioreactor, where they take up residence in the empty rat liver.
The entire process from gathering the cells to make a liver, to get to this point, where you have an actual mini human liver in a bioreactor, takes several months.
It will stay alive, or viable, for only a few days.
But in that short time, the researchers can try different medicines to treat the diseased liver.
“You could test any sort of therapeutic by simply injecting this chemical through the system,” says Dr. Collin.
In the past, animal livers played a role in this kind of research but human livers didn’t always respond in the same way.
With this system, the cells have had genetic modification to recreate diseases, for example, fatty liver, a growing problem in the United States.
This technology has the potential for personalized medicine. From your skin cells, they could grow your own mini liver to figure out which medicines would work for you.
“I believe it’s a very good biological tool to screen treatments that are not otherwise being tested in humans themselves because it’s dangerous,” says Dr. Soto.
As it’s designed, it would be a long stretch to create livers for transplantation.
“If you mean how far we are to make actual livers for people, I think we are very far away. We’re probably many years away. But this is a good step,” Dr. Soto says.