There are already several artificial hearts and “bridging” devices for heart failure patients waiting for a heart transplant. Dialysis keeps those with kidney failure going while waiting for a matching kidney donor. But for those with liver failure, the only currently available treatment is liver transplant. There aren’t enough donors available and there aren’t any devices available to keep the patients alive long enough to find the right donor. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH):
“Your liver’s job is to help fight infections and clean your blood. It also helps digest food and stores energy for when you need it. People needing a liver transplant are placed on a national waiting list kept at the United Network for Organ Sharing. Their blood type, body size and severity of sickness all play a role in when they’ll receive a liver. Whole livers can come only from people who have just died. Currently, there’s an estimated shortfall of about 4,000 livers per year.”
For years, researchers have been trying to find an alternative to liver transplant. A recent report in the NIH Research Matters gives us hope that an artificial liver transplant may just be around the corner.
The researchers used the process of decellularization, which is “removing cells from a structure but leaving a scaffold with the architecture [including the microvascular network] of the original tissue.” The researchers used a gentle detergent to decellularize a rat’s liver, a process that took three days and left a liver-shaped structure held together by a matrix of proteins and a microvascular network. They then introduced functional hepatocytes (liver cells) into the structure and successfully “recellularize” the matrix into an organ with comparable functions to a normal liver. The artificial liver was successfully grafted into rats.
Although this method of creating an artificial liver is still at a very early experimental stage, it gives doctors hope that this process could be also be performed in humans someday and thus resolve the issue of shortage of liver for transplantation.
According to study leader Dr. Korkut Uygun of the Massachusetts General Hospital:
“As far as we know, a transplantable liver graft has never been constructed in a laboratory setting before. Even though this is very exciting and promising, it is a proof-of-concept study only. Much more work will be required to make long-term functional liver grafts that can actually be transplanted into humans.”