London: Transplant patients who are very ill may be able to grow their own livers in the near future. In a novel attempt, Cambridge University researchers turned slivers of skin from patients` arms into liver cells.
The technique could potentially generate full-sized livers, each a perfect match to the patient, reports the Daily Mail. The breakthrough will also hasten the search for new drugs for a condition which kills more Britons each year than diabetes and traffic accidents combined.
The experiments involved taking slivers of skin from patients with inherited liver diseases and turning these into stem cells and then coaxing them into becoming liver cells.
Cambridge researcher Tamir Rashid likened the change from skin to liver cell to persuading a group of musicians to play a different type of music, according to the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
He said: "It is a bit like getting an orchestra to change from playing classical music to rock music."
"The cell has the same genetic material, we have only changed the type of music it is playing. It has gone from a skin type of music to a liver type of music and that is exciting."
The lab-grown liver cells carry the genetic hallmarks of the patients` diseases. Comparison with healthy cells will allow researchers to find out more about the causes of their illness.
Rashid said: "I see hundreds of patients every year and they always ask me the same thing -- why do they have liver disease when their neighbour drinks the same amount and is exposed to the same environment?"
"I am never able to answer that. Now I can take an individual patient and generate liver cells and research why this person has liver disease and another person doesn`t."
Patches of diseased cells could also be used to rapidly test hundreds of thousands of drugs, speeding up the search for new treatments and cutting the need for animal experiments.
The technology to turn skin cells into liver cells has been available for several years but this is the first time it has been used successfully on people with liver disease.
Using a person`s own cells would remove the risk of the new organ being rejected by the body. Tens of millions of people worldwide suffer from liver disease.