A tiny human liver has been grown from umbilical cord blood stem cells for the first time by British scientists. This eliminates the need for animal experiments for drug testing.
According to the scientists, this mini liver, the size of a 1p coin, is just the initial phase of generating segments that can be made use of to mend damaged liver and also a mature functioning form.
Scientists from Newcastle University worked in association with experts from the U.S. The artificial liver was generated from stem cells isolated from umbilical cord blood obtained from newborn babies.
These stem cells were subjected to rapid proliferation by placing in a "bioreactor" developed by NASA. These cells were then induced to convert into liver tissue by the addition of certain hormones and chemicals.
This was the first time that liver tissue had been generated from cord blood stem cells, unlike the previous experiments, where embryonic stem cells were used to produce liver tissue. Use of cord blood stem cells is ethically more acceptable than the use of embryonic stem cells as the embryo is destroyed in the procedure.
New drugs can be tested in such mini organs instead of direct human trials. This is useful in avoiding several tragedies like the recent Elephant Man case, in which, dreadful physical damage had occurred in the human volunteers.
Scientists are hopeful that in a few years time, parts of the mini liver could be used to treat the harm caused by injury, disease, alcohol and drug abuse. They also foresee generating mature liver that can be used in patients the same way as dialysis machines are used.
Alison Rogers of the British Liver Trust said: "Stem cell technology represents a huge leap forward in treating many diseases. With liver disease in particular it has the potential for tremendous advances."
"One hundred million children are born around the world every year - that is 100 million different tissue types," said Colin McGuckin, professor of regenerative medicine at Newcastle University. "With that number of children being born every year, we should be able to find a tissue for me and you and every other person who doesn't have stem cells banked."
Co-researcher Dr Nico Forraz said: "Our dream is that every city would have such a bank. If you could type the blood, all you would have to do is dial it up on your computer and fly it from Bristol to Newcastle or even Newcastle to Mumbai."