An exciting new study, led by scientists from King’s College London, has discovered a new type of cell in the liver. The research describes the cell as having “stem cell-like properties,” with the potential to regenerate damaged liver cells and treat disease in the organ without the need for a transplant.

From hepatitis to cirrhosis there are over 100 different individual conditions that result in damage to the liver. Collectively, liver diseases have been dramatically rising in the United States over the past decade. Damage to liver cells is generally permanent, and if severe enough the only effective treatment is a complete liver transplant.

New research suggests an entirely new treatment for liver disease in the future could eliminate the need for liver transplants by essentially regenerating diseased or damaged liver cells. Utilizing a method called single-cell RNA sequencing the researchers closely studied human fetal and adult livers and discovered a specific type of cell, called a hepatobiliary hybrid progenitor cell (HHyP).

In utero, when a fetus is developing, HHyP cells act as precursors to the two main types of mature liver cells, hepatocytes and cholangiocytes. But most interestingly, the new research reveals the presence of small amounts of these HHyP cells in adult livers. The implications of this discovery suggest the possibility of several kinds of treatments that could regenerate damaged liver cells instead of a more invasive liver transplant.

“For the first time, we have found that cells with true stem cell like properties may well exist in the human liver,” says lead author on the new research, Tamir Rashid. “This in turn could provide a wide range of regenerative medicine applications for treating liver disease, including the possibility of bypassing the need for liver transplants.”

One hypothetical possibility raised by the study is that induced pluripotent stem cells could be turned into HHyP cells and then transplanted into a damaged liver, hopefully regenerating the damaged tissue. Even more radically, the researchers suggest the potential for triggering activity in HHyP cells already in a person’s liver to repair any damage.

“We now need to work quickly to unlock the recipe for converting pluripotent stem cells into HHyPs so that we could transplant those cells into patients at will,” explains Rashid. “In the longer term, we will also be working to see if we can reprogram HHyPs within the body using traditional pharmacological drugs to repair diseased livers without either cell or organ transplantation.”

It is early days for the research, but this initial extraordinary discovery paves the way for entirely novel future treatments for liver disease that may remove the need for onerous and invasive organ transplantation procedures.

The new research was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: King’s College London

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