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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 December, 2004, 01:21 GMT
Stem cells 'to treat liver harm'
Excessive drinking can lead to cirrhosis
UK researchers are pioneering tests of the use of adult stem cells which could reverse cirrhosis of the liver.

London's Hammersmith Hospitals team will use a patient's own bone marrow stem cells to treat the disease.

New Scientist magazine also reports on a Japanese team looking at using the treatment for liver fibrosis.

Currently, the only hope for many patients is a transplant - but there are too few organs available, so other treatments are urgently needed.

In the UK, the waiting list for a transplant more than doubled between 1994 and 2003, from 101 to 239, although around 600 people a year receive a transplant.

Cirrhosis kills around 4,000 people in the UK each year.

Usually, these patients will need a liver transplant, but there are very long waiting lists
Professor Nagy Habib, Hammersmith Hospitals NHS Trust
The UK research involves taking blood from the patient and separating it into its component parts.

Stem cells are isolated from the white blood cells and injected into the hepatic artery in the liver, while the red blood cells are returned to the body through the arm.

Laboratory tests have shown the treatment can improve the function of the liver by repopulating it with stem cells.

In chronic liver disease, cells are lost, reducing the effectiveness of the liver and leading to ill health.

Patients are currently being recruited to the Hammersmith study so the treatment's safety and efficacy can be treated.

Professor Nagy Habib, head of liver surgery at the trust, who is leading the research, told the BBC News Website: "Usually, these patients will need a liver transplant, but there are very long waiting lists. They may not be able to have a transplant.

"And there is no option of dialysis, as there is with kidney disease.

"If this research is successful, it would be a very good option for those people."

Jellyfish gene

In the Japanese study, mouse livers were damaged by injecting them with a chemical which causes fibrosis, where scar tissue develops in the liver.

It can go on to develop into cirrhosis when nodules of cells form at the junctions of the fibrous strands.

After four weeks, they took bone marrow cells from donor mice that had had been treated with a jellyfish gene to make their cells glow green.

This allowed the researchers to track the progress of the cells.

After a few weeks, it was found that all the cells had migrated to the liver.

By the eighth week of the study, also published in Heptology, it was found that the proportion of fibrous tissue in the liver had shrunk significantly.

The bone marrow cells appeared to change into liver cells and make large amounts of an enzyme which is thought to play a role in dissolving fibrotic tissue.

Mice whose livers had been damaged, but who were not given the treatment, did not show any reduction in fibrous tissue.

'People drinking more'

The team now plan to give the same treatment to humans, using the patient's own stem cells to avoid problems of rejection of donor cells.

However, Inder Verma and Yoshiyuki Kanazawa, of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, told New Scientist a similar study they had carried out showed hardly any evidence of healed liver tissue after the infusion of bone marrow cells.

They said they believed "bone-marrow derived cells cannot generally lead to a cure of liver damage".

Alison Rogers, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, said liver diseases were on the rise, and treatments were needed.

"People are drinking more, and younger than they used to, and women are drinking more," she said.

Liver disease drive not enough
08 Dec 04 |  Health

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