With at least two million people dying each year from liver diseases, finding solutions is critical. Many scientists are turning to biotechnology, exploring protein manipulation and gene editing to try and restore damaged liver cells or hepatocytes. Now, one team of researchers from Nanjing University and the University of Macau believe they have found a similar solution using the human spleen.
Background: The Difficulties of Liver Biotechnology
The liver is a unique organ because it detoxifies and creates many essential proteins and chemicals needed for digestion. While the liver is the only organ in the human body capable of regeneration, that process is limited. Studies have shown that removed liver lobes do not fully grow back, limiting the healed liver’s size and, in turn, its function, presenting difficulties for individuals with damaged or diseased livers.
Using biotechnology to regrow or create a liver is complicated, as the liver performs many processes and has stem-cell qualities of regeneration. While researchers are still working to crack the secret of growing artificial livers, a separate team of scientists attempts to transform a spleen into a liver.
Analysis: Mice are Perfect Guinea Pigs for Liver Biotechnology
In a paper published in Gut, Nanjing University and the University of Macau used live mice to test their experiments. They wanted to see if they could induce the spleen to produce hepatocytes and essentially act as a liver. Using silica particles, the researchers stimulated the growth of a group of cells called a fibroblast, which works in connective tissue. The researchers then used specific genes to convert the fibroblasts into hepatocytes, resulting in a pseudo-liver. The pseudo-liver performed well enough to help mice survive with 90% of their livers removed.
Outlook: Liver Biotechnology May Be Just the Beginning
While livers have been regrown, there is little room to grow a brand-new liver in the human body. That is why the researchers looked to transform an existing organ to overcome this challenge. Transitioning from mice to humans is quite a way away. Still, if this process proves to be successful in people, it may one day save millions of lives. This type of growth could also help avoid invasive surgery for many individuals. According to the paper’s lead author Professor Lei Dong of Nanjing University: “Our method is direct, efficient, and different from all existing ones in that it does not involve cells or tissues from the outside, so it avoids many safety issues and immune injection. You can imagine that it works directly on the patient’s own cells.”
This type of liver transformation may only be the beginning of a new trend in medicine. Hearts, lungs, and perhaps even brains may be grown from other organs. This process could cause a dramatic shift in the world of medicine and save millions of lives.
Kenna Castleberry is a staff writer at the Debrief and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). She focuses on deep tech, the metaverse, and quantum technology. You can find more of her work at her website: https://kennacastleberry.com/