Researchers at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) have developed sophisticated human liver organoids from human liver cells that could potentially be used to screen new drugs for toxicity and study congenital liver diseases with greater accuracy.
The liver organoids were created from fetal liver progenitor cells and self-assembled on a disc constructed from ferret liver tissue with all animal cells removed. The process took approximately three weeks to grow liver organoids 1/3 of an inch in diameter. The resulting tissues are the closest biomedical engineers have come to creating a fully function lab grown human liver model.
The researchers are not the first to create human liver organoids, although their liver model has advanced the bioengineering of functional livers considerably.
This is the first time that biomedical scientists have been able to generate human liver organoids that actually model human liver development and this is the first time that liver tissues have been engineered that are capable of generating hepatocytes – The primary functional cells in the liver.
Another major first is the liver organoids have been shown to be capable of generating bile ducts. Scientists can therefore use the organoids to study the step by step process of bile duct formation, which could provide important insights into diseases such as biliary atresia – a disease affecting infants that results in impaired bile drainage.
“We expect these organoids to advance our understanding of how liver diseases – especially congenital diseases – start and progress, so improved treatments can be developed.” said Shay Soker, Ph.D., professor of regenerative medicine at WFIRM.
While it is possible to use animal models to study diseases, there are naturally differences between human and animal tissues which limits the value of such studies. The same applies to drug screening, which can lack accuracy when conducted in animal models.
In addition to aiding the study of diseases, the technique could also potentially be used to generate fully functional liver tissue that could be transplanted into patients.
The research is detailed in the paper – Self-assembled liver organoids recapitulate hepatobiliary organogenesis in vitro – which was recently published in the journal Hepatology.