What Is Liver Stem Cell Therapy?

Erin J. Hill

Liver stem cell therapy involves the use of stem cells to create or repair liver tissue. When most people think of stem cell treatments, they think of embryonic stem cells developed and harvested in a laboratory. While this is one source of healthy cells, there are other sources where cells may be harvested. For instance, certain tissue cells or bone marrow cells can be used for many treatments. The study of liver stem cell therapy is growing, and the potential for curing disease is promising.

Tissue in the liver is repaired or created in liver stem cell therapy.
Tissue in the liver is repaired or created in liver stem cell therapy.

There is much debate in regards to liver stem cell therapy when embryonic cells are involved. To harvest these cells, human embryos are allowed to develop in a laboratory setting. They are then used for their cells. Some groups believe that this is unethical because it involves creating human life and then using it for medical purposes. Other believe that such embryos do not yet constitute a human being. This debate will likely continue for some time, so scientists have discovered other ways to take advantage of stem cells.

Some studies have shown that certain forms of skin cells can be used in liver stem cell therapy. The cells are cultivated and altered so that they are nearly identical to embryonic stem cells. They can then be used to create near-identical liver cells. In studies performed at the time of this writing, these cells were able to produce liver proteins when injected into lab animals. More research and tests may be needed before it is determined how effective this treatment would be in humans, but initial tests are quite promising.

Stem cells can also be taken from bone marrow in some cases. Although not used quite as often in liver stem cell therapy, use of bone marrow cells is common in the treatment of other diseases. Studies are being conducted to determine which types of stem cells would work in the treatment of liver disease.

As of 2011, scientists cannot generate an entire liver using stem cells. These cells would be used in the patient's body to replace sick or dying cells. The most common treatment for severe liver disease is dialysis and liver transplant. With the use of stem cells, doctors may eventually be able to create liver tissue for transplant into patients, or to repair a damaged or diseased liver. The possibilities are still being discovered.

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