Scientists from Newcastle University have managed to grow the world's first miniature artificial liver in the laboratory. The team, led by Dr Nico Forraz and Professor Colin McGuckin, used NASA technology to make the piece of tissue, the size of a one penny piece, from donated umbilical cord blood cells. The team hope that within two years they will be able to send the mini-livers to drug companies, allowing them to test new drugs in human tissue. In the future the technique may make it possible to transplant pieces of cord blood-derived liver to help patients, or even, one day, to build whole livers for transplantation.
Professor McGuckin has previously published work detailing his successful derivation of liver type cells from cord blood. In this newly announced research the team have utilised a 'Bioreactor' developed at NASA to mimic a weightless environment which greatly speeds up the process of cell division and multiplication. Various hormones and chemicals are then added in order to make the complete mini-livers. Dr Forraz and Professor McGuckin have set up a company called ConoStem in order to market their research. In the first instance the company hopes that the breakthrough will reduce the possibility of accidents such as the Northwick Park trial where healthy volunteers suffered a reaction to a new drug in development, and also that it could reduce the need for animal testing of new drugs. Using cord blood rather than embryonic stem cells (ES cells) also reduces many of the ethical barriers that sometimes face stem cell researchers.
The new research is not currently published but the extent of the team's progress has emerged after they won the science and technology award at the North East Universities Business Planning Competition. Talking of their 'Eureka moment', Professor McGuckin imagined a future where cord blood is banked from every child enabling researchers to match blood and immune types. 'One hundred million children are born around the world every year - that is 100 million different tissue types', he said, adding 'with that number of children being born every year, we should be able to find a tissue for me and you and every other person who doesn't have stem cells banked'.
Other researchers were more cautious about the Newcastle breakthrough. Dr Stephen Minger, a stem cell researcher at Kings College London, said 'this research hasn't been through the proper scientific channels yet - it hasn't been peer reviewed. It is impossible to know whether this work is meaningful or not'. Liver specialist Professor Ian Gilmore cautiously welcomed the research, saying 'they are able to do it from umbilical cord blood and not requiring embryos. That's quite a big ethical leap forward. And they are producing such a significant amount of tissue'. However, he pointed out that 'we're a long way from producing a whole liver. The liver has its own blood supply, its own fibrous skeleton, they are just producing the individual liver cells. But nonetheless it is exciting because there is a real dearth of treatments available for people with liver disease'.