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Researchers convert cirrhosis-causing cells to healthy liver cells in mice

Advances in stem cell research have made it possible to convert patients’ skin cells into heart cells, kidney cells, liver cells and more in the lab dish, giving researchers hope that one day such cells could replace organ transplantation for patients with organ failure. But successfully grafting these cells into patients’ failing organs remains a major clinical challenge.

Now a team of researchers led by UC San Francisco scientists has demonstrated in mice that it is possible to generate healthy new liver cells within the organ itself, making engraftment unnecessary. What’s more, they did it by converting the very cells that drive liver disease, thereby reducing liver damage and improving liver function at the same time. The technique takes advantage of a viral gene delivery technology that has gone through early validation in patients for liver-directed gene therapies, suggesting it could be readily translated into a therapy for patients with liver disease, said Holger Willenbring, MD, PhD, a professor of surgery at UCSF and senior author of the new study, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

“Part of why this works is that the liver is a naturally regenerative organ, so it can deal with new cells very well. What we see is that the converted cells are not only functionally integrated in the liver tissue, but also divide and expand, leading to patches of new liver tissue,” said Willenbring, who is also associate director of the Liver Center at UCSF and a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research.

Healthy new liver cells
UCSF researchers have learned to generate healthy new liver cells (dark green, right side) within the livers of living mice by converting the very cells that drive liver disease (red, left side), thereby reducing liver damage and improving liver function at the same time
Image Credit: Willenbring lab / UCSF