Livers Created from Stem Cells

Scientists have made the first functional, vascularized livers from human induced pluripotent stem cells.

By | July 3, 2013


Human iPSC-derived liver buds. TAKANORI TAKEBELiver cells derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and cultured with developmentally important progenitor cells self-organize into functional, three-dimensional liver buds, according to new research published today (July 3) in Nature. The liver buds exhibited metabolisms that, in some aspects, resembled that of human livers, the researchers found, and when transplanted into mice, the buds connected with the host circulatory system.

“I think the quality of the work in the paper is very high,” said Stephen Duncan, the director of the Regenerative Medicine Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin, who did not participate in the research. “They got iPSCs to differentiate by adding cells that produce the right growth factors . . . and then the cells spontaneously formed these three-dimensional aggregates that were able to form a rudimentary vasculature.”

There are currently more than 100,000 people around the globe with end-stage organ failure awaiting organ transplants. With no end to the shortage of organ donors in sight, scientists have for decades attempted to build organs for transplantation from the ground up. The discovery of embryonic stem cells in 1981 offered promise that custom-made organs could be grown in the lab. Later, the discovery of iPSCs offered the possibility of making organs from patient’s own undifferentiated cells, which would circumvent compatibility concerns.

“If you could use iPSCs to generate a truly functioning organ, then you would have this unlimited suitcase of spare parts that would be genetically matched to individuals,” said Duncan.

“Most researchers working on generating organs focus on one component: functional cell differentiation from human iPSCs,” said study lead Takanori Takebe, a regenerative medicine specialist at the Yokohama City University in Japan. “But that is not an efficient approach, so we established a new concept for three-dimensional organ generation.”

During natural liver development, sheets of liver cells cleave off of gut endodermal cells—the cells that make up the innermost germ cell layer of the embryo—and form a liver bud, a mass of condensed tissue that quickly becomes vascularized. To recapitulate liver development, Takebe’s team cultured the human hepatocytes, or liver cells, derived from iPSCs with two other developmentally important cell types—human umbilical vein endothelial cells and human mesenchymal stem cells. Within 48 hours of combining these three cell types, the mass of liver cells self-organized into three-dimensional clusters and formed blood vessels.

Microarray analyses of 83 genes known to be active during liver development also revealed that gene expression in the iPSC-derived liver buds was more similar to human fetal liver tissue than that of iPSC-derived hepatocytes created by other groups. However, Duncan expressed concern that the authors did not compare the gene expression profile of the liver buds with that of adult human liver tissue.

“Because you don’t have that benchmark, it’s really difficult to know how much better these [liver bud] cells are [than previously created hepatocytes],” said Duncan.

The researchers also found that the liver buds broke down certain drugs in a way that mirrored human metabolism. Furthermore, levels of human serum albumin—an important liver metabolite—produced by the transplanted liver buds were higher than those produced by other iPSC-derived hepatocytes.

The albumin levels are “a good indication that you’ve got functional cells,” said Duncan, “but again, there’s no quantitative comparison with human cells.”

In order to visualize how well the liver buds integrated with a host vasculature system, Takebe’s team transplanted the buds onto the brains of immunodeficient mice so they could view the tissue masses through a window implanted in the skull. Fluorescent imaging of the blood vessels within the liver bud revealed that the vessels formed unobstructed connections with the mice’s vasculature within 48 hours of transplantation.

“[The study] is a technical achievement, and it may some day be applied to the clinic,” said Shay Soker, a bioengineer at the Wake Forest School of Medicine who did not participate in the research. But Soker is skeptical that the technique will scale up to create viable human livers. He said that although the team demonstrated vascularization in the liver buds, he is not convinced that the process would happen quickly enough in larger liver buds transplanted into humans before the organs died of oxygen starvation.

“The most important step is to make a liver bud large enough to transplant into humans,” agreed Takebe. “Livers are composed of 10 to 100 billion hepatocytes. We need to establish a new kind of automated culture system to enable the production of a mass-scaled liver bud.”

T. Takebe et al., “Vascularized and functional human liver from an iPSC-derived organ bud transplant,” Nature, doi:10.1038/nature12271, 2013.

Add a Comment

Avatar of: You



Sign In with your LabX Media Group Passport to leave a comment

Not a member? Register Now!

LabX Media Group Passport Logo


Avatar of: PD


Posts: 18

July 5, 2013

Another great example of the use of human adult stem cells (iPSC's)!  Let's hope that this advancement moves on to the clinic. 

It seems obvious that the use of embryonic stem cells, cells derived after ending the life of human embryos, is not needed in research in light of the many examples of cells derived morally.

Avatar of: dhawal


Posts: 1

November 11, 2013

hello people i had a question regarding this article. while i was going through the actual article on nature i got to know that the researchers did the transplant in the brain why is that? why did they did not choose any other parts of the body but only brain.if anyone culd answer it for me it will be really great....

Avatar of: William Gunn

William Gunn

Posts: 1

August 13, 2014

This is totally amazing!  With this type of research, waiting for tranplants will be a distant memory within a few decades.  Plus too, the applications for Human Life Prolongation will be available.  Considering the average age of death for a man in 1900 was 47, and the reason they set the age of Social Security to 65 in 1935 was the fact that only 20% of the population lived to that age then, perhaps within a few decades the average age at mortality might be 120-130!  Of course some major sociological changes will be needed to be put in place for this to occur in a peaceful manner.

William Gunn

Popular Now

  1. Long-term Study Finds That the Pesticide Glyphosate Does Not Cause Cancer
  2. Man Receives First In Vivo Gene-Editing Therapy
  3. Researchers Build a Cancer Immunotherapy Without Immune Cells
  4. Child Receives Transgenic Skin Over Most of His Body