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A Step Closer to Artificial Livers

Researchers identify compounds that help liver cells grow outside the body.

Prometheus, the mythological figure who stole fire from the gods, was punished for this theft by being bound to a rock. Each day, an eagle swept down and fed on his liver, which then grew back to be eaten again the next day.

Modern scientists know there is a grain of truth to the tale, says MIT engineer Sangeeta Bhatia: The liver can indeed regenerate itself if part of it is removed. However, researchers trying to exploit that ability in hopes of producing artificial liver tissue for transplantation have repeatedly been stymied: Mature liver cells, known as hepatocytes, quickly lose their normal function when removed from the body.

“It’s a paradox because we know liver cells are capable of growing, but somehow we can’t get them to grow” outside the body, says Bhatia, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, a senior associate member of the Broad Institute and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science.

MIT researchers have generated mature liver cells from induced pluripotent stem cells. In this image, the cell nuclei are stained blue. The green stain identifies liver cells, and the red stain identifies cells that are actively dividing. Image: Shan et al, Nature Chemical Biology, 2013
 

Date: 
Monday, June 3, 2013