A team of researchers belonging to the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine has, for the first time, succeeded in growing genetically altered miniature human livers in the laboratory to address human liver disease development and test therapeutics. The researchers have published their findings in the journal Cell Metabolism, wherein they explain how they turned genetically engineered human cells into functional, 3D liver tissue that resembles non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition that involves fat build-up in the liver, which can lead to cirrhosis or even liver failure. The obesity rate is escalating in America, and NAFLD is rapidly becoming the leading cause of chronic liver disease.
Senior author Alejandro Soto-Gutierrez, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor, Pathology, Pitt’s School of Medicine and faculty member, McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine and the Pittsburgh Liver Research Center, says that this is the first time they have created genetically engineered human livers with a disease by utilizing stem cells in the lab. This breakthrough will not only be advantageous in studying the progression of the condition but also in drug discovery and development, as a safer alternative to clinical trials that eliminates the dire consequences in case of failure. The structure of the mini livers is distinct from natural ones, with tiny balls of cells that self-assemble to mimic simplified organ functions. However, the mini livers lacked the different zones of metabolic capacity of normal livers. The researchers seeded the genetically engineered human liver cells into rat livers that were free of their own cells, where they blossomed into functional 3D mini livers, along with blood vessels and other structural features of a normal organ.
Genetically engineered, lab-grown mini livers are a ready and efficient test-bed for drugs at every stage of disease progression. Soto-Gutierrez explains that the mini livers will need more time to be ready for clinical applications like transplants, but in the future, we will be able to make human livers where one can order a particular kind of function and even enhance functions.