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Boosting cell production could help treat liver disease

Researchers at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh have discovered how to enhance the re- generation of key cells needed for repairing damaged liver tissue.

Liver disease is the fifth biggest killer in the UK. There are almost 500 people waiting for a liver transplant, compared to just over 300 five years ago. Over a 30 years period, Scotland has had one of the fastest increases of cases involving chronic liver disease and cirrhosis in the world.

Professor Stuart Forbes, Associate Director at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, who is a consultant hepatologist and was the academic leader of the study, said: “Liver disease is on the increase in the UK and is one of the top five killers. Increasing numbers of patients are in need of liver transplants, but the supply of donated organs is not keeping pace with the demand. If we can find ways to encourage the liver to heal itself then we could ease the pressure on waiting lists for liver transplants.”

When the liver is damaged it produces too many bile duct cells and not enough cells called hepatocytes. The hepatocyte cell is the main cell of the liver and is primarily involved in detoxification and are also needed to replace or repair damaged liver tissue. When a liver becomes extensively damaged the patient is required to have a liver transplant. This research is a significant stepping- stone in designing drugs to help combat liver disease and avoid the transplant procedure.

The researchers at the MRC have discovered how to enhance the production of these key cells needed to repair damaged liver tissue by manipulating gene activation. The study, published in the journal Nature Medicine indicated work carried out by Dr. Luke Boulter (University of Edinburgh’s MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine) found by altering the expression of genes in early stage liver cells they could increase hepatocyte cell development instead of bile duct cells. Doctor Boulter said, “Understanding the process in which cells in the liver are formed is key in looking at ways to repair damaged liver tissue.”

The study was carried out in collaboration with the University’s MRC Centre for Inflammation Research, the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow and the K.U. Leuven in Belgium.

Robert A. Spakovskis

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