First liver grown from stem cells offers hope for transplant patients
AN ARTIFICIAL liver has been grown for the first time from stem cells, it emerged last night.
The breakthrough by British scientists is considered the vital first step towards creating a fully artificial liver that could be used to tackle ever-growing waiting lists for transplants within as little as ten years.
A team based at Newcastle University grew the miniature liver, using stem cells taken from umbilical cords. Dr Nico Forraz and Professor Colin McGuckin worked with scientists from NASA in Houston, Texas.
Using some of the skills they obtained at NASA they were able to produce the miniature livers. These can now be used for drug and pharmaceutical testing, eradicating the need to test on animals and humans.
Professor McGuckin said the transplant of a section of liver - grown from cord blood - could be possible within the next ten to 15 years.
However, he said a full transplant using a liver grown in a laboratory is decades away.
Professor McGuckin said the use of mini-livers could prevent another Northwick Park Hospital disaster, where six human guinea pigs almost died after taking an experimental drug.
"We take the stem cells from the umbilical cord blood and make small mini-livers. We then give them to pharmaceutical companies and they can use them to test new drugs on", he said.
"It could prevent the situation that happened earlier this year when those six patients had a massive reaction to the drugs they were testing."
Professor McGuckin said this development could also mean the end of animal testing.
"When a drug company is developing a new drug it first tests it on human cells and then tests it on animals before beginning trials on humans," he said.
"Moving from testing on animals to humans is a massive leap and there is still a risk, as was shown earlier this year. But by using the mini-livers we have developed there is no need to test on animals or humans."
Dr Forraz, a researcher at the university, and Professor McGuckin have now co-founded a company called ConoStem and have teamed up with the Tyneside-based Centre of Excellence for Life Sciences (CELS) to look at marketing their work.
Last year, Prof McGuckin, while working at London's Kingston University, announced he had obtained stem cells from babies' umbilical cord blood, which appeared to be very similar to human embryonic stem cells, and used them to grow liver tissue.
In the year to April this year, 13 patients died waiting for a liver transplant in Scotland and four were removed from the list because they were too ill.
There have been 178 liver transplants in Scotland over the past five years.
Earlier this month, it emerged that Scotland will become the first place in Europe to sell useable human stem cells. A 2 million centre will market the cells to researchers attempting to find cures and treatments for diseases such as Parkinson's, diabetes and leukaemia.
The Roslin Cells Centre in Midlothian will produce human stem-cell "lines" from donated eggs and embryos to be sold worldwide on a non-profit basis. They will go to universities, the NHS and commercial concerns for testing and developing new drugs.
The joint project is a partnership between the Roslin Institute - which created Dolly the sheep - Edinburgh University and the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service.
Next line of attack
TREATMENTS using stem cells have been hailed by some experts as the next line of attack in the battle against many life-threatening diseases.
Stem cells taken from the first stages of human embryo development can be made to replicate specific tissues - offering a possible renewable source of replacement cells and tissue to treat a myriad of diseases.
Scientists are examining potential treatments for such conditions as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and motor neurone disease.
However, such use of stem cells has led to a great deal of debate - typically on religious and moral issues.
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