Washington: In a path-breaking research, scientists have discovered a way to transform skin cells into mature, fully functioning liver cells that flourish on their own.
The technique could serve as an alternative for liver-failure patients who do not require full-organ replacement or who do not have access to a transplant owing to limited donor organ availability.
Researchers at Gladstone Institutes and University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) revealed a new cellular reprogramming method that transforms human skin cells into liver cells that are virtually indistinguishable from the cells that make up liver tissue.
“Earlier studies tried to reprogramme skin cells back into a stem cell-like state in order to then grow liver cells. However, generating these pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, and then transforming them into liver cells was not always resulting in complete transformation,” explained Sheng Ding, senior investigator at Gladstone Institutes.
“So we thought that, rather than taking these skin cells all the way back to a stem cell-like state, perhaps we could take them to an intermediate phase,” he added.
Instead of taking the skin cells back to the beginning, the scientists took them only part way, creating endoderm-like cells.
Endoderm cells are cells that eventually mature into many of the body's major organs - including the liver.
This step allowed them to generate a large reservoir of cells that could more readily be coaxed into becoming liver cells.
Next, the researchers discovered a set of genes and compounds that can transform these cells into functioning liver cells.
After just a few weeks, the team began to notice a transformation.
“The cells began to take on the shape of liver cells and even started to perform regular liver-cell functions,” said Milad Rezvani from University of California.
They transplanted these early-stage liver cells into the livers of mice.
Two months post-transplantation, the team noticed a boost in human liver protein levels in the mice.
Nine months later, cell growth had shown no signs of slowing down.
These results offer new hope for the millions of people suffering from, or at risk of developing, liver failure.
At present, the only option is a costly liver transplant.
The power of regenerative medicine already allows scientists to transform skin cells into cells that closely resemble heart cells, pancreas cells and even neurons, concluded the study that appeared in the journal Nature.