British scientists have grown liver cells out of stem cells from human skin, boosting hopes that healthy cells can be transplanted into organs to repair damage from diseases like cirrhosis and cancer, according to new findings.
Cambridge University researchers took skin biopsies from seven patients suffering from various hereditary liver diseases, and from three healthy patients, "reprogramming" the skin samples into stem cells which can effectively become any tissue in the body.
For the first time, such cells were used to mimic a range of liver diseases, according to the findings published in Wednesday's Journal of Clinical Investigation.
Growing liver cells in a laboratory is particularly difficult.
By replicating such cells in diseased livers, and replicating the healthy cells from a control group, researchers can not only determine precisely what is happening in the diseased cell, but also test the effectiveness of new therapies to treat diseases.
Principal investigator of the research Ludovic Vallier, of the MRC Centre for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Cambridge, described the work as "an important step towards delivering the clinical promises of stem cells."
Such genetic engineering could lead to targeted and personalized therapies and, once diseased cells are treated, could eventually enable the transplant of healthy liver cells into a patient's damaged liver.
The process could be used to create similar models for use in other organs, the study's authors said, although more research is needed.
The success comes as a debate swirls in the United States on research involving human embryonic stem cells, after a US judge Monday blocked federal funding for stem cell research.
Christian organisations had argued that federal funding would go for research that involved destroying human embryos, which they said violated a 1996 law.
Many scientists see embryonic stem cells as essential for medical research as they have a unique ability to become virtually any cell in the body.
"Given the shortage of donor organs -- the liver in this case -- the development of alternatives is urgent," said the findings' lead author, Tamir Rashid of Cambridge University.
"Our study raises the possibility of developing such alternatives, either by developing new treatments or developing a cell therapy approach," he said.
Liver disease is the fifth most common cause of death in many developed countries, with mortality rates rising, according to the researchers.