With a shortage in available livers, researchers have found a new way to engineer liver tissue.
A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Rockefeller University and Boston University organized tiny subunits that contain three types of cells into a biodegradable tissue scaffold.
After being implanted in the abdomen, the tiny structures expanded 50-fold and were able to perform normal liver tissue functions in a study of mice with damaged livers.
Currently, approximately 17,000 Americans are waiting for liver transplants.
“There are just not enough organs to go around,” Sangeeta Bhatia, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, said in a statement. “Our goal is that one day we could use this technology to increase the number of transplants that are done for patients, which right now is very limited.”
Bhatia developed an engineered tissue scaffold in 2011 that could be implanted into the abdomen of a mouse and integrate with the mouse’s circulatory system to allow it to receive a blood supply and begin performing normal liver functions.
The researchers built on that work by taking advantage of a key trait of liver cells where they can multiply to generate new liver tissue. They designed microfabricated structures that incorporate spherical organoids made of hepatocytes and fibroblasts, as well as cords of endothelial cells that are building blocks of blood vessels.
The mice receive regenerative signals—including growth factors, enzymes and molecules—from the surrounding environment after the constructs are implanted.
The engineered livers could help facilitate liver transplants for those suffering from cirrhosis and hepatitis, as well as help those suffering from chronic liver disease that don’t qualify for a transplant.
“These patients never really are transplant candidates, but they suffer from liver disease, and they live with it their whole lives,” Bhatia said. “In that population you could imagine augmenting their liver function with a small engineered liver, which is an idea we’re pretty excited about.”