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.
Now, Bhatia and colleagues have taken a step toward that goal. In a paper appearing in the June 2 issue of Nature Chemical Biology, they have identified a dozen chemical compounds that can help liver cells not only maintain their normal function while grown in a lab dish, but also multiply to produce new tissue.
Cells grown this way could help researchers develop engineered tissue to treat many of the 500 million people suffering from chronic liver diseases such as hepatitis C, according to the researchers.
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