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ADVANCE Discourse: Lab

Tiny Livers, Tiny Steps

Published July 11, 2013 12:48 PM by Michael Jones

Whole organs building themselves out of what seems to be thin air has been a fantasy of any number of made-for-TV science fiction movies. Researchers in Japan, on the other hand, no longer have to rely on bad entertainment after watching it physically become reality right before their eyes. An article from NPR recently covered the production of tiny livers formed from, well, nothing -- using induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSC).

According to the article, laboratories around the world have been trying to produce organs from stem cells for year, usually using a type of three dimensional plastic scaffolding that the cells could stick to in order to grow the necessary tissue. Takanori Takebe, MD, led the team of researchers from Yokohama City University in developing a new technique for growing the organs -- simply allow them to build themselves -- and it worked. By mixing IPSC with other types of cells, the research team was able to grow “tiny 3D structures that looked and acted like miniature livers, or ‘liver buds.’”

“There have been groups that have attempted to generate liver cells, and that’s been promising,” said George Daley, MD, PhD, of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, in the NPR article. “This is the first attempt to regenerate the organ by mixing the cells that are critical components of that organ.”

The “liver buds” had grown to 5 mL in five days and, because they had been mixed with other cells, were capable of building blood vessels. Later, the tiny livers were implanted into test mice and functioned “as a regular liver would,” “[breaking] down human drugs and [making] blood proteins.” Prior to the liver buds, scientists had used the plastic scaffolding to grow synthetic organs like tracheas and had succeeded in implanting the laboratory organs into a few patients, but “more complex organs -- kidneys, pancreases and livers” had remained unsuccessful.

New technology is re-shaping the healthcare industry. Despite being a breakthrough in IPSC research, safety remains a concern for the tiny “liverettes” as stem cells have been known to form tumors. The potential for stem cell research stands to advance in great leaps and bounds in the coming years. As such, professionals have guarded optimism.rded optimism. 

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