Functional Liver Tissue Can Now Be Grown From Stem Cells

Liver “buds”—small lumps of functional three-dimensional human liver tissue—were grown from a mix of stem cells.

Stem cell research has resulted in several important breakthroughs in medicine, such as rebuilding the larynx and regenerating spinal cord connectors.

Now the liver, one of the most highly sought after organs on the donor transplant list, could get some serious stem cell assistance as well.

A team of scientists led by Takanori Takebe  has successfully created a miniature version of the human liver with the help of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), which are derived from adult somatic cells.


They developed the iPSC into generalized liver cells called hepatocytes, at which point the researchers mixed in endothelial cells and mesenchymal stem cells, left the petrify dishes alone for a couple days, and voila — an extremely tiny version of a human liver, said to be the first-ever functional human organ grown from stem cells, was born.

The liver “buds,” as they’re known, measure five millimeters long and are the sort you would find in human embryos shortly after fertilization.

When implanted in mice, the baby livers managed to perform all the functions of their adult equivalents.

The researchers’ next step would be to generate liver buds that are a touch closer to normal liver tissue — like the addition of bile ducts — and to see if they can mass produce them by the tens of thousands.

Don’t go wasting your liver just yet though, as it’ll likely be years before the likes of you and me will be able to have a lab-grown liver in our bodies.


Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this research, though, is its potential universality: The researchers speculate that this sort of method could someday be used to grow all sorts of organ tissue, including that of the pancreas and kidneys. In the short term, the technique could also have innovative applications—for example, liver buds alone could be used to test the toxicity of drugs in development, because the full organ’s internal structures aren’t necessary to determine which chemicals can’t be broken down in the body.

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