‘Bridge to transplant’: Mini human livers grown in rats spurs research that could alleviate transplant shortage

| June 17, 2020
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A lab-grown mini liver originally derived from human skin cells in the team's bioreactor. Credit: University of Pittsburgh
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Using skin cells from human volunteers, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have created fully functional mini livers, which they then transplanted into rats.

In this proof-of-concept experiment, the lab-made organs survived for four days inside their animal hosts. These results were published [June 2] in Cell Reports.

“Seeing that little human organ there inside the animal – brown, looking like a liver – that was pretty cool. This thing that looks like a liver and functions like a liver came from somebody’s skin cells,” said senior author Alejandro Soto-Gutierrez.

These mini livers secrete bile acids and urea, just like a normal liver, except they’re made-to-order in the lab using patient cells.

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In all cases, blood flow problems had developed within and around the graft, but the transplanted mini livers worked – the rats had human liver proteins in their blood serum.

Soto-Gutierrez is optimistic that this research is not merely a stepping-stone on the path toward growing replacement organs in a lab, but also a useful tool in its own right.

“The long-term goal is to create organs that can replace organ donation, but in the near future, I see this as a bridge to transplant,” Soto-Gutierrez said. “For instance, in acute liver failure, you might just need hepatic boost for a while instead of a whole new liver.”

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