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Thursday, 7 February, 2002, 17:36 GMT
Cell discovery may aid liver transplants
liver transplant surgery
There is a shortage of liver transplant organs
Scientists at Bath University say they have made a significant development in organ research which could help liver transplant patients.

Biologists have succeeded in converting pancreas cells into liver cells and say it opens up new possibilities for organ replacement.

The process is described by team leader Dr David Tosh as "molecular alchemy" and was discovered by accident.


In the long term, I don't know whether in 10 years time we could grow a whole liver

Dr David Tosh, biologist
However, it may be some time before the findings lead to any clinical applications, medical experts warn.

Dr Tosh and his colleagues, Professor Jonathan Slack and Chia-Ning Shen unexpectedly found the pancreatic cells changed shape and produced a liver protein when a synthetic hormone was added.

In the long term it could pave the way for replacement organs to be grown for patients from their own cells.

Donor organ shortages

In the short term, the team hopes tissue grown from the cells could be transplanted into patients to keep them alive while they are waiting for a transplant.

There is a shortage of organ donors and patients often die before a suitable transplant organ is found.

Dr Tosh said: "We have shown there is the ability to convert pancreas cells to liver cells.

"In the long term, I don't know whether in 10 years time we could grow a whole liver.

"But it could have short term applications.

"It would circumnavigate problems if you could take patients' own pancreas cells and convert them to liver cells because there wouldn't be the possibility of rejection."

Scepticism

Dr Tosh believes liver tissue produced from converted pancreas cells may also be useful to the pharmaceuticals industry for use in drug screening.

The medical profession is however sceptical of its potential clinical application.

Director of the Scottish liver transplant unit at Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary, Professor James Garden said: "The difficulty of research at cellular level is knowing what the application is in clinical practice.

"If I have a cell transplant, how is that going to help me if my liver fails?

"Also, if someone with long-standing chronic liver disease, has an injection of pancreas cells converted into liver cells, is it going to produce new liver cells in the liver?"

He said the pancreas is also a difficult organ, from which to remove cells.

"What's more exciting is the fact that we are beginning to get a better understanding of what makes a particular type of cell behave in a particular way, said Professor Garden.

The team at Bath University has been working on the project for the past four years and has been awarded a Medical Research Council grant of more than 230,000 to carry out further studies.

They are now trying to establish the steps involved in the cells changing from pancreas to liver cells.

See also:

25 Jan 02 | Health
'Race role in liver transplants'
18 Oct 00 | Health
Inoperable liver cancer treatment
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