October 30, 2006
Mini-livers Grown From Umbilical Cord Stem Cells

A Newcastle University team in England has grown mini-livers from umbilical cord stem cells.

Scientists have grown an artificial liver that is set to revolutionise the medical world, it was revealed today.

A team based at Newcastle University have grown a tiny liver, believed to be the first of its kind in the world.

Using stem cells taken from umbilical cords, Dr Nico Forraz and Professor Colin McGuckin made the breakthrough.

The two scientists also took a trip to Houston, Texas, to work with scientists at Nasa.

And using some skills they learned at Nasa they were able to make the miniature livers, which can now be used for drug and pharmaceutical testing, eradicating the need to test on animals and humans.

They think they are 10 years to being able to grow a full liver.

Dr Forraz said: "We have taken a little bit of umbilical cord blood, and then it is all about enhancing things that already exist.

"We cannot build a fullsized liver yet. That will take about 10 years. But this is the first important step.

"We expect this to really take off in the next 18 months or so.

Livers are relatively simpler things to grow than 3 dimensionally more complex structures such as hearts and kidneys. So I'm expecting we'll see replacement livers before replacement hearts or kidneys.

They see a series of steps with mini livers first used for pharmaceutical research and liver pieces used to repair damage.

As it stands, the mini organ can be used to test new drugs, preventing disasters such as the recent 'Elephant Man' drug trial. Using lab-grown liver tissue would also reduce the number of animal experiments.

Within five years, pieces of artificial tissue could be used to repair livers damaged by injury, disease, alcohol abuse and paracetamol overdose.

And then, in just 15 years' time, entire liver transplants could take place using organs grown in a lab.

These scientists intend to commercialize their work with their company ConoStem.

Liver replacement has applications beyond liver cirrhosis. First off, some people die from liver failure brought on by the trauma of accidents. Also, liver cancer is another kind of liver failure which kills people. Liver cancer cases that are now inoperable will become operable when it becomes possible to remove an entire liver and replace it with a new one.

For a number of types of organs replacement to treat cancer might end up saving more lives than replacement due to accidents and other diseases. Got pancreatic cancer? Replace it. Got kidney cancer? Replace it. Advances in testing will allow identification of a growing portion of all cancers before metastasis. If a cancer is still contained within a single organ then an excellent solution might some day be to just replace that whole organ. Though other ways to cure cancer might eventually avoid the need for this approach.

We can develop the technology to grow replacement parts for just about every part of the body and this can be accomplished within the lifetimes of most of the people reading this. So why aren't we trying much harder? Government research funding for stem cells and tissue engineering should be at least an order of magnitude larger.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 October 30 10:05 PM  Biotech Organ Replacement

Steel Turman said at October 30, 2006 11:22 PM:

Oh, this simply won't do ... we need to clone embryos for this sort of thing.

Don Little said at October 31, 2006 3:29 AM:

Please comment as to whether embryonic stem cells or adult stem cells were used for this fantastic scientific and medical advance. Michael J. Fox would like to know.

Jake said at October 31, 2006 7:27 AM:

I am against our government funding embryonic stem cell research because it is money down a rat hole. Other governments that have funded the research have nothing to show for it other than many cases of fraud.

Some of our universities have used their own money to fund it and come up with nothing but empty promises. Drug companies examined the field and gave up on it as waste of money.

Non-embryonic stem cell research is paying dividends such as mentioned in your post. Venture capital is flowing into the field so no government money is needed.

Bob Badour said at October 31, 2006 8:08 AM:


I guess the Wright brothers must have been complete morons to invest money in powered flight when all the previous attempts had been wastes of money. One might even say that money spent on heavier than air flight was money down a rat hole.

Or is it just government funding that you oppose?

rsilvetz said at October 31, 2006 10:12 AM:

Just a nit:

Currently, liver transplant for liver cancer is rarely performed because of the unfortunate truth that metastatic cells are spread virtually from the onset of the cancer. This is true of all solid tumors. Excellent work at UCSD showed that the cells go off and remain quiescent in foreign tissues. This fact couples to immunosuppression for the new liver and metastatic disease eventually explodes.

Having said that -- what a great advance. Don't understand why it will take 10-years to drive to a full liver. I suppose there is a real problem with o2 perfusion during growth of the liver tissue. Hyperpressurization is a dead-end for anything bigger than a quarter-sized coin of tissue. But it should be possible to make a vascular scaffold, I think ACT has some patents on that...

Randall Parker said at October 31, 2006 3:35 PM:

Steel Turman,

The debate human embryonic stem cell research is an unfortunate distraction from a far more important issue: The total number of dollars spent on stem cell research period. Instead of spending about $650 million per year for stem cell research (that's about 2004 budget but the medical research budgets aren't even keeping up with inflation and so that number is close) we should be spending $5 billion or $10 billion. Why not spend 5 weeks worth of the yearly Iraq war budget (we are burning $2 billion a week or $100 billion a year in that rat hole) on stuff that'll actually save lives?

$10 billion a year to make adult stem cells more flexible would do it. Cells are just complex state machines. There exist manipulations waiting to be found that will shift adult stem cells into states that'll make them grow more rapidly and become more types of cells.

Randall Parker said at October 31, 2006 3:39 PM:

Don Little,

The stem cells were from umbilical cords. Notice the subject title. Umbilical cords are why you have a belly button. The cord brings nutrients and blood into a developing fetus. When babies are born the umbilical cord is cut off and normally thrown away. But very youthful stem cells can be extracted from them.


South Korea spends much less on stem cells of all kinds compared to the US. One deceptive scientist proves nothing about the prospects for embryonic stem cells.

But, again, the human embryonic stem cell debate is a distraction. We should up the amount spent on adult and umbilical stem cells and animal stem cell research by an order of magnitude.

Bugs 'n' Gas Gal said at November 2, 2006 2:33 AM:

This research seems a far better investment than transgenic organs, and it avoids the embryonic stem cell argument. It would also someday obviate the need to argue about the morality of buying organs from the world's poor (see at PLoS Medicine here.)

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