In a breakthrough for the medical profession, scientists have revealed that attempts to grow mature human liver cells from skin cells have been successful. Researchers from the Roddenberry Center for Stem Cell Research at the Gladstone Institutes and the Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), used stem cell techniques for the basis of their research, testing the resultant cells on mice with engineered liver failure.

Titled 'Mouse liver repopulation with hepatocytes generated from human fibroblasts' and published in scientific journal Nature, the study heralds an optimistic future for the development of effective liver failure treatments. The development of fully mature cells is the key game-changer for the study, as previous attempts with under-matured liver cells failed to survive after transplantation.

Study leader Sheng Ding, PhD, and Senior Investigator at Gladstone Institutes, noted that prior attempts saw scientists taking the wrong tack.  "Earlier studies tried to reprogram skin cells back into a pluripotent, stem cell-like state in order to then grow liver cells," said Dr. Ding. As a result, the reprogrammed cells behaved like liver cells, but perished too soon after development to form the basis of liver disease treatments. Ding elaborated on his team's method: "However, generating these so-called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, and then transforming them into liver cells wasn't always resulting in complete transformation. So we thought that, rather than taking these skin cells all the way back to a pluripotent, stem cell-like state, perhaps we could take them to an intermediate phase."

As such, Ding and his colleagues deviated from the direction of previous studies. Rather than manipulating skin cells to a form reminiscent of stem cells, they instead used the endoderm - a germ cell layer of a budding embryo, and a later phase than stem cells - as the building blocks of the experiment, using a variety of genes and compounds to influence the development of the cells. The process worked, with the cells changing shape and taking on characteristics of organic liver cells. Holder Willenbring, M.D., PhD, of the UCSF's Liver Center, was positive about the development, saying that the result offers an "alternative for liver-failure patients who don't require a full-organ replacement, or who don't have access to a transplant due to limited donor organ availability."

At present, there are over 16,000 Americans on waiting lists for liver transplants. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chronic liver disease and cirrhosis account for 10.3 deaths per 100,000 people. 

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