UK scientists have shown that bone marrow stem cells, already known to be the precursors of blood cells, can also give rise to adult liver cells. Their findings, published in last week's Nature, have implications for research into new treatments for patients with diseased or damaged livers. 'We may be able to stimulate liver regeneration using cells from the patient's own bone marrow', said team leader Professor Nick Wright, of Imperial College, London.
The researchers analysed liver cells from female patients who had received bone marrow transplants from male donors, and from male patients who had received transplants from female donors. Using DNA probes, they found that male cells were present in the livers of female patients, and vice versa. These results indicate that the donated bone marrow stem cells (cells that give rise to specialised types of blood cells) were also capable of growing into liver tissue.
Professor Wright said that liver regeneration would be particularly useful for patients whose livers had been damaged due to drug side effects, or through surgery to remove cancers. He said that it would avoid problems with current liver transplants where the body rejects the foreign organ. He also said that the technique did not have the ethical limitations associated with the use of embryo stem cells (cells that can grow into any type of tissue) to repopulate the liver.
Scientists are currently waiting for the government to give embryo stem cell research the go-ahead in the UK. Many believe that it offers the best hope for developing new therapies for degenerative illnesses such as Parkinson's disease.