MIT Study Looks for Way to Grow Livers

Artificial livers would reduce the need for transplants, and they may soon be possible.


Liver photo via Shutterstock

At this point, the actual procedure of transplanting a liver is relatively old news—it’s finding a donor that’s often the hardest part. New research from MIT wants to take that problem out of the equation entirely.

Despite the liver’s ability to regenerate when a piece of it is removed or damaged, mature liver cells have long frustrated scientists by becoming useless when taken out of the body. Not content with taking no for an answer, MIT scientists tested more than 12,000 chemicals and found a dozen that allow liver cells to maintain proper function—including drug detoxification, metabolism, protein synthesis, and creating bile—when taken out of the body and allow them to multiply enough to, in theory, produce an all new liver. Two of the compounds, in particular, worked especially well when used with cells, called induced pluriopotent cells, that were manipulated to grow into liver cells.

In a separate but related study, the same team of MIT researchers found a way to embed the cords of endothelial cells into the tissue, which allows the body to grow blood vessels that bring oxygen and nutrients to the new organ. A report from MIT quotes Sangeeta Bhatia, who led the team:

“Together, these papers offer a path forward to solve two of the longstanding challenges in liver tissue engineering — growing a large supply of liver cells outside the body and getting the tissues to graft to the transplant recipient,” Bhatia says.

Future studies will be devoted to testing the artificially-produced cells in mice to see if they can act as a fully functional liver, and attempting to use the chemical compounds in drugs that would allow people with damaged livers, which is often a result of hepatitis C, alcohol abuse, and other chronic diseases, to regenerate the organ. While the process is still very young and in development, the promise of the study transcends liver transplants, pointing to a medical future without lengthy donor waiting lists and risk of rejection. After all, why transplant an organ when you can grow one?