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Stem cells move scientists closer to 'Holy Grail for liver biologists'

3 March 2014
Appeared in BioNews 744

'Mini livers' grown from mouse stem cells could reduce the need for laboratory testing on animals, thanks to research from the University of Cambridge.

Dr Meritxell Huch, along with colleagues at the Netherlands' Hubrecht Institute, was able to grow fully functioning three-dimensional liver tissue from adult mouse stem cells.

Dr Huch says that by using this method, cells from one mouse could be used to test 1,000 drug compounds to treat liver disease, and prevent testing on around 50,000 animals.

'If other laboratories adopt this method then the impact on animal use in the liver research field would be immediate', said Dr Huch. 'A vast library of potential drug compounds could be narrowed down to just one or two very quickly and cheaply, which can then be tested further in an animal study'.

In the liver, stem cells are present in a dormant state and only become active following an injury so that new liver cells can be produced. The researchers identified and extracted these stem cells from mouse livers and grew them over the course of a year.

The subsequent liver 'organoids' were then implanted into mice with liver disease. The condition of the mice improved and so extended their life.

The research has been recognised by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) and awarded a £20,000 prize to Dr Huch.

Dr Vicky Robinson, chief executive of the NC3Rs, said: 'Growing functioning liver cells in culture has been the Holy Grail for liver biologists for many years... Researchers need to utilise this alternative technology as soon as possible to ensure the benefits to animals and human health are fully realised'.

The team has further refined the process using cells from rats and dogs and is now moving onto testing it with human cells, which could lead to liver tissue being grown for transplants.

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