A team of Chinese geneticists claims to have created a bio-artificial liver using stem cell technology that could help millions of people battling cirrhosis and other life-threatening liver diseases.
Chinese authorities have approved trials for the device that helps the compromised organ function until it regenerates or until a suitable donor liver is sourced.
Every year, a half a million to one million Chinese citizens are diagnosed with liver failure, according to an industry report issued by Frost and Sullivan.
At present, there is no known cure for the disease, with the most effective treatment being an organ transplant, which is incredibly hard to come by due to a chronic global shortage of organ donors, a lack of surgeons with the expertise to carry out the procedure and prohibitive costs.
Even if the transplant is successful, patients require immunosuppressant medications for the remainder of their lifetime, according to a University of Guangzhou professor and liver transplant specialist at the First Affiliated Hospital of Sun Yat-sen, Jiao Xingyuan.
Scientists conducting the trials found the survival rate of animal subjects increased five-fold from 17 per cent to 87.5 per cent, according to Gao Yi, director of the Translational Medicine Centre at Zhujiang Hospital.
The technology’s efficacy was observed to be promising both in cell models and live models, which included pigs, mice and monkeys, said Gao, a senior researcher who oversees the development of the project.
Gao is an expert in the field and has dedicated nearly three decades researching bio-artificial livers and liver disease. His work was the first of its kind to receive funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China.
The team’s creation, a so-called bioreactor, sits outside the patient’s body and performs all the functions a working liver would, detoxifying the blood and synthesising protein and chemicals that aid digestion.
The bioreactor processes blood through a fibrous membrane and grows stem cells that are reincorporated into the patient’s bloodstream and help regenerate damaged tissue and suppress inflammation.
Similar treatments, like dialysis, exist, but this is the first time the membrane system has been used to culture stem cells.
The project has been hailed as a breakthrough and there are hopes that it will be applied in clinical practice. However, there is still work to be done before Gao’s work will see commercial use, according to the Frost and Sullivan report.
Chinese medical firms, such as the Wuhan-based Togo Meditech, have gathered data from several cases and begun clinical trials.
Gao expressed confidence in his team’s potentially life-saving device, saying he is already collaborating with Quin Hui Biotech to roll out the product nationwide.