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First Organ Grown From Stem Cells Alone: Report

Researchers say their advance, with livers for mice, may one day increase availability of human transplants

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Brenda Goodman

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, July 3 (HealthDay News) -- Japanese scientists report they've turned a cocktail of stem cells into the world's first functioning livers.

The tiny livers were created in the lab and transplanted into mice, where they grew and began to perform the same functions as human-sized livers, including metabolizing drugs and making liver-specific proteins.

Though very basic -- the experimental livers don't have all the features of full-grown organs -- it's believed to be the first time scientists have grown a three-dimensional organ in the lab using only cells.

Previously, scientists have made solid organs using stem cells that are seeded onto some kind of scaffold, either a donor organ that's been washed of all its original cells or some kind of artificial material.

But one expert said this latest approach takes the concept one step further.

"This is a different strategy to create tissues and organs," said Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine, in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"The work is very important because it allows you to study how organs are created and how they give rise to more functional complex systems," Atala said. "This is a nice advance."

With further study, researchers think their technique could one day solve the critical shortage of human organs for transplantation.

"We are now assessing the applicability to other organs such as the pancreas and kidneys because they have a similar kind of developmental course as the liver. So far, we've had fascinating results," Takanori Takebe, a professor of regenerative medicine at the Yokohama City University Graduate School of Medicine, said at a press briefing.

Takebe added that he thought it would take at least 10 years before an organ grown this way could be transplanted into a person.

For the experiments, described online July 3 in the journal Nature, researchers mixed three different kinds of stem cells that each turn into a different kind of tissue.

Pluripotent stem cells -- which have the ability to differentiate into nearly any type of cell in the body -- were induced to become liver endoderm, the germ layer that creates the spongy bulk of liver tissue. Those cells were mixed with mesenchymal stem cells, which produce connective tissue, and a population of stem cells derived from human umbilical cord blood that grow into the tissue that lines blood vessels.

Mixing cell types was important because it mimicked the same process that happens during fetal development. The different cell types use chemical signals to talk to each other, orchestrating the process of organ formation.

"There are no other groups that [I am] aware of that have tried the method described in the paper," Takebe said through a translator.

This is something which other people have kind of overlooked in their desire to develop and grow pure cell lines, that is the mixing of stem cells plus other factors that would be required for the formation of an organ, Takebe said.

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