In a breakthrough study, researchers at The Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee have successfully been able to reproduce liver cells from patients' skin cells.
Led by Dr. Stephen A. Duncan, the study has paved the way for treating a wide range of diseases that affect liver function.
"This is a crucial step forward towards developing therapies that can potentially replace the need for scarce liver transplants, currently the only treatment for most advanced liver disease," said Duncan.
Loss of liver function can be caused by several factors, including genetic mutations, infections with hepatitis viruses, by excessive alcohol consumption, or chronic use of some prescription drugs.
When liver function goes awry it can result in a wide variety of disorders including diabetes and atherosclerosis and in many cases is fatal.
For the study, the researchers generated patient-specific liver cells by first repeating a previous work, which showed that skin cells can be reprogrammed to become cells that resemble embryonic stem cells.
They then tricked the skin-derived pluripotent stem cells into forming liver cells by mimicking the normal processes through which liver cells are made during embryonic development.
Pluripotent stem cells are so named because of their capacity to develop into any one of the more than 200 cell types in the human body.
After completing the process, the researchers found that they could very easily produce large numbers of relatively pure liver cells in laboratory culture dishes.
"We were excited to discover that the liver cells produced from human skin cells were able to perform many of the activities associated with healthy adult liver function and that the cells could be injected into mouse livers where they integrated and were capable of making human liver proteins," said Duncan.