Researchers have identified a new type of cell that may be able to regenerate liver tissue and treat liver failure without the need for transplants.
The scientists at King's College London in the UK used single cell RNA sequencing to identify the cell type called a hepatobiliary hybrid progenitor (HHyP), that forms during our early development in the womb.
HHyP also persist in small quantities in adults and these cells can grow into the two main cell types of the adult liver — Hepatocytes and Cholangiocytes — giving HHyPs stem cell like properties.
The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, examined HHyPs and found that they resemble mouse stem cells, which have been found to rapidly repair mice liver following major injury, such as occurs in cirrhosis.
"For the first time, we have found that cells with true stem cell like properties may well exist in the human liver," said Tamir Rashid from the King's College London.
"This in turn could provide a wide range of regenerative medicine applications for treating liver disease, including the possibility of bypassing the need for liver transplants," said Rashid.
Liver disease can be caused by lifestyle issues such as obesity, viruses, alcohol misuse or by non-lifestyle issues such as autoimmune and genetic mediated disease.
Symptoms of liver disease include jaundice, itching and feelings of weakness and tiredness and in more severe cases, cirrhosis.
The only treatment for severe liver diseases at present is a liver transplant which can lead to a lifetime of complications and for which the need for donor organs greatly outweighs the increasing demands.
"We now need to work quickly to unlock the recipe for converting pluripotent stem cells into HHyPs so that we could transplant those cells into patients at will," Rashid said.
"In the longer term, we will also be working to see if we can reprogramme HHyPs within the body using traditional pharmacological drugs to repair diseased livers without either cell or organ transplantation," he said.