Liver Cells Made to Order

Oct. 16 -- THURSDAY, Oct. 15 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers have produced liver cells from the skin cells of people, potentially paving the way toward better treatments for those with liver disease.

"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," the study's lead author, Stephen A. Duncan, a professor of cell biology, neurobiology and anatomy at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, said in a news release from the college.

Statistics suggest that liver disease is the fourth-leading cause of death among middle-age people in the United States. Causes include genetic factors, chronic alcohol use and infection with the viral disease hepatitis.

The researchers first reprogrammed skin cells to turn into cells that are similar to embryonic stem cells, which have the ability to become different types of cells in the body. Then they coaxed the cells to become liver cells.

"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," Duncan said.

The research is at an early stage, and it's not clear if the liver cells could then be transplanted into the people who donated the skin cells.

If it works, however, the approach would bypass the ethical problems posed by the use of embryonic stem cells.

Researchers hope that transplanted liver cells would help the liver regenerate itself and become healthy again.

More information

The American Liver Foundation has more on liver disease.

SOURCE: Medical College of Wisconsin, news release, Oct. 8, 2009