Researchers at MIT, Rockefeller University, and Boston University have developed a new way to engineer liver tissue, by organizing tiny subunits that contain three types of cells embedded into a biodegradable tissue scaffold.

Many diseases, including cirrhosis and hepatitis, can lead to liver failure. More than 17,000 Americans suffering from these diseases are now waiting for liver transplants, but significantly fewer livers are available.

To help address that shortage, researchers at MIT, Rockefeller University, and Boston University have developed a new way to engineer liver tissue, by organizing tiny subunits that contain three types of cells embedded into a biodegradable tissue scaffold. In a study of mice with damaged livers, the researchers found that after being implanted in the abdomen, the tiny structures expanded 50-fold and were able to perform normal liver tissue functions.

“There are just not enough organs to go around. Our goal is that one day we could use this technology to increase the number of transplants that are done for patients, which right now is very limited,” says Sangeeta Bhatia, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science.

These engineered livers could also help the millions of people who suffer from chronic liver disease but don’t qualify for a liver transplant, says Bhatia, the senior author of the study, which appears in the July 19 issue of Science Translational Medicine.

“These patients never really are transplant candidates, but they suffer from liver disease, and they live with it their whole lives. In that population you could imagine augmenting their liver function with a small engineered liver, which is an idea we’re pretty excited about,” she says.

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