A portable, artificial liver, made from living human cells, could save thousands of lives.
Stored in a tiny cartridge outside the body, the cells work like the real thing, purifying and filtering blood.
They are kept alive with oxygen and a special ‘soup’ of nutrients, and work around the clock for several days cleaning the blood of patients with liver failure, who would otherwise die.
The device, which has been dubbed ‘liver in a box’, is being used for the first time by British doctors. It is designed to be used temporarily by patients awaiting a transplant, many of whom die before a liverbecomes available.
But doctors believe it could eventually be used as a treatment itself because of its ability to show the damaged liver time a recover and heal itself.
A healthy liver is vital because it separates toxic particles from the blood and and plays a key role in the processing of food and drink.
The liver is the body’s biggest internal organ, the liver breaks down, modifies, and regulates all kinds of material, including carbohydrates, lipids, arnino acids, proteins, and nucleic acids. Its production of bile aids digestion and the excretion of wastes.
When a liver fails, the toxins stay in the blood and can cause harm to nerves, increase pressure in the brain, and damage other organs.Unlike chronic liver disease, acute liver failure which can be caused by a range of problems including viral hepatitis is repairable because undamaged liver cells divide and are able to regenerate the liver.
The problem is that in order to do so, the liver has to be given time-out to effect its own repairs. The main treatment for acute liver failure is a transplant backed up by intensive care to keep the patient alive while waiting for a donor.
But there aren’t enough donor organs to meet demand. Around 500 transplants a year are carried out in Britain, although more than 5,000 people need the life-
‘Despite the best that medicine can offer, even the shortest wait for donor organs can affect the chance of survival.
‘Having a means of temporary support could buy precious time,’ says Dr Peter Linden, associate professorat the University of Pittsburgh, one of the main investigators involved in technology trials.
The Elad (Extracorporeal Liver Assist Device) artificial liver works in a similar way to kidney dialysis. It is made up of two cartridges containing thousands of hollow fibres.
Human liver cells, cloned and mass produced in the laboratory, are put inside these hollow spaces. With the help of a supply of oxygen and nutrients, they attach themselves to the pockets of the hollow fibres and multiply. When the cells are ready for use, the patient’sblood is pumped through a filter and the blood cells and blood plasma are separated.
The plasma is then pumped through the hollow fibres of the artificial liver.
As it passes through the cartridge, millions of active liver cells work on the liquid to rid it of toxins. Once the liquid plasma has been treated, it is remixed with the blood cells.
As well as helping to remove toxins, the artificial liver carries out other necessary jobs, such as adding beneficial proteins.
Initial studies have shown that the technology kept 92per cent of patients alive while they waited for a transplant, or their own organ recovered. Larger trials are planned.
Avoiding the need tor a transplant is good news for the patient and public health, which will be saved money each operation costs at least $60,000.