According to Public Health England, liver disease is a devastating all too common condition. It is the fifth biggest killer in the UK* and the third most common cause of premature death and it is on the rise.
Regenerating liver tissue
Now, researchers at King's College London may have found a solution to this disease. The scientists have used single cell RNA sequencing to identify a type of cell that may be able to effectively regenerate liver tissue.
The outcome of this discovery would be that liver failure could soon be treated without the need for dangerous risky transplants. The newly discovered cell is called a hepatobiliary hybrid progenitor (HHyP).
The cell forms during our early development in the womb but also continues to exist in small quantities in adults. These stem-cell-like cells can grow into the two main cell types of the adult liver (Hepatocytes and Cholangiocytes).
"For the first time, we have found that cells with true stem cell like properties may well exist in the human liver. 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 Lead author Dr Tamir Rashid from the Centre for Stem Cells & Regenerative Medicine at King's College London.
In mice, the scientists discovered that HHyPs resembled mouse stem cells which have been found to rapidly repair mice liver following injury. Up to now, the only treatment for severe liver diseases is a liver transplant.
This option is tricky and risky as the operation often leads to a lifetime of complications. There is also the fact that the need for donor organs greatly outweighs the increasing demands.
However, this new stem cell therapy could resolve these issues by fixing the old liver or producing a new liver from a patient's own cells.
Converting pluripotent stem cells into HHyPs
"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. 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," said Dr Rashid.
The paper is published in the journal Nature Communications.