Researchers in California have developed an artificial liver tissue through 3D-printing that is capable of mimicking the structure and functions of the human liver. The team believes the new technology can help drug makers save significant time and effort in screening new medications and modeling various diseases.

In a study featured in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Professor Shaochen Chen and his fellow engineers at the University of California, San Diego created the 3D-printed tissue as a way to reduce the time and money pharmaceutical companies typically spend in order to come up with a Food and Drug Administration approved treatment.

Chen said that new drugs that receive approval from the FDA typically cost $1.8 billion and take about 12 years to make. This is because the majority of these drugs does not go through testing on animals or clinical trials involving humans.

The purpose of the artificial liver tissue (PDF) is to let pharma companies carry out pilot studies on new treatments without having to wait a long time for the results of human or animal trials. It would allow them to focus on drug candidates who show great promise early on in their development, according to Chen.

Using Liver Tissue Models

The human liver is responsible for helping the body produce key proteins that it needs to function well. It also allows the body to properly process the various drugs it typically takes in.

Scientists develop liver models in laboratories to recreate the organ's primary functions for use in drug screening. Existing models, however, lack the liver's complex micro-architecture and cell makeup.

The liver tissue model that the UC San Diego researchers developed is designed to closely resemble the real human organ.

Study co-author Shu Chien explained that their model is capable of reproducing the liver's intricate system for delivering blood supply. This provides them with an opportunity to examine how the organ combines its metabolic and circulation functions in dealing with health and disease.

The artificial liver tissue was produced through a revolutionary bioprinting technology that was developed in Chen's laboratory. Its complex structure was then cultured in vitro for about 20 days.

Chen and his colleagues tested the ability of the tissue to perform different liver functions, such as secreting albumin and producing urea, and then compared the results with those of other liver models.

They discovered that the 3D-printed tissue was able to maintain its liver functions for longer periods compared to other similar models. It also expressed a higher amount of a key enzyme that is believed to be connected with the metabolism of various drugs that patients typically receive.

The researchers hope that their new technology can be used in reproducing various disease models, such as cancer, cirrhosis and hepatitis, to help scientists have a better understanding on such illnesses.

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