Bioethics Blogs

iMPCs: Cell Reprogrammers Take Aim at Liver Disease

Cross-section of mouse liver

Caption: Cross-section of mouse liver containing iMPC-derived human liver cells (red), some of which are proliferating (green). All cell nuclei appear blue.
Credit: Milad Rezvani, Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research, University of California, San Francisco

Over the past few years, researchers have learned how to reprogram skin or blood cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which have the ability to differentiate into heart, nerve, muscle, and many other kinds of cells. But it’s proven a lot more tricky to coax iPSCs (as well as human embryonic stem cells) to differentiate into mature, fully functional liver cells.

Now, NIH-funded researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and the Gladstone Institutes appear to have overcome this problem. They have developed a protocol that transforms human skin cells into mature liver cells that not only function normally in a lab dish, but proliferate after they’ve been transplanted into mice that model human liver failure [1]. This ability to proliferate is a hallmark of normal liver cells—and the secret to the liver’s astounding capacity to regenerate after infection or injury.

This work is significant because currently the only treatment for liver failure is a liver transplant, which carries the risk of organ rejection and infections related to the immune-suppressive drugs used to prevent such rejection. More than 16,000 Americans are currently on the waiting list for liver transplants, and thousands die each year before a donated organ can be found. While this report is just an early step, it holds the promise of providing new liver cells from a patient’s own skin cells.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.