Scottish scientists hail artificial liver breakthrough

Alan Faulkner-Jones, part of the Heriot-Watt team, with the new artificial liver cells. Picture: Colin Hattersley
Alan Faulkner-Jones, part of the Heriot-Watt team, with the new artificial liver cells. Picture: Colin Hattersley
Share this article
Have your say

SCOTTISH scientists are creating the world’s first artificial liver tissue made from human cells, a technology they say has the potential to both speed up and slash the cost of testing and producing new drugs.

Scotland on Sunday has learned that a team at Heriot-Watt University is using the cells to build liver tissue which will become a testing platform for drugs to treat a range of illnesses. It is hoped that the development of artificial livers will reduce and ultimately replace the need to test medicines on animals.

Will Shu, a lecturer in micro-engineering who is leading the research, said: “The medical benefits could be enormous. Artificial human liver tissues could be very valuable to drug development because they mimic more closely the response of drugs on humans, helping to select safer and more efficient drug candidates.”

With the human cells, the Scottish scientists are working to create miniature human ­liver tissues and have already developed a process known 
as “livers-on-a-chip” which “prints” the cells in 3D onto testing surfaces.

“This will make it possible for pharmaceutical companies to test new drugs on human livers during pre-clinical trials. The hope is more drug failures would be identified at this early stage and those drugs which proceed past that stage would be more likely to show success in clinical trials,” said Shu.

“On top of this, it is often argued that animal models are not ideal when testing drugs destined for use in humans. If we could establish better in-vitro models than animals using artificial human tissues or organs, the animal testing may ultimately be replaced.”

Another benefit of artificial livers would be faster results for drug tests and a significant reduction in the cost of clinical trials. “New blockbuster drugs take ten to 15 years and over $1 billion of investment to get them to market,” said Shu.

“Realistically, human organs on a chip could reduce the time to below ten years but, critically, the cost could be as much as halved.

“Testing new drugs currently requires large numbers of experimental animals. This work is expensive, time-consuming and is often inconclusive since drugs that pass animal testing usually fail during the even more expensive clinical stages of development, when the first human subjects are used. And all new drugs need to be tested for potential liver toxicity so this would benefit all diseases.”

Despite major scientific advances, artificial livers do not yet exist because of the complex nature of their creation. The scientists at Heriot-Watt are leading the way, but believe it could take between two and three years before a viable organ is produced.

“Creating a whole, implantable liver has been difficult because it involves growing three-dimensional tissues and, like all organs, the liver consists of many different cell types and complex vascular structures to supply the nutrition. The mini livers we want to make will be less complex and can be made using our printing technology,” said Shu.

“To make them we create the smallest building block for the liver tissue using 3D cell printing, and differentiation of stem cells.”

The new “mini livers” will be life-like but tiny, measuring about 1mm.

Roslin Cellab in Midlothian, a company that works with pharmaceutical and biotech organisations to push forward the commercialisation of stem-cell products, last night welcomed the potentially life-saving project. Dr Jason King, of Cellab, said: “If successful, this technology will enable drug developers to test using human organ models at a much earlier stage. It should highlight drug failures well before they reach the clinic and help target resources towards the most promising new drugs.”

Tina Gray, whose husband Michael died from bowel cancer after fighting to reverse a decision not to give him life-saving drugs, said the project had the potential to “save many, many lives and prevent a lot of heartache”.

Gray, 60, of Buckie in Moray, said: “For many patients time is the one thing they do not have, and if this project means drugs are tested faster and drug companies are able to get life-saving drugs to people sooner then this is wonderful.

“It is great to see Scotland at the forefront of medical research like this. Hopefully this could free up money and mean drugs currently deemed too expensive could be given to more people in desperate need of them to save or prolong their lives.”

Her husband died in 2008, aged 53, after calling on Grampian Health Board to prescribe the drug Cetuximab, which he was told would prolong his life. He won his battle just weeks before he died.

Animal Aid, which campaigns against testing on animals, welcomed the project, saying it had the potential to save countless animals from experimentation and death.