New MIT Human Liver Model Shows How It Regenerates, Giving Patients Hope to Avoid Transplants

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)engineers have developed a new liver tissue model to help identify the stages of liver regeneration, in the hope of helping people with liver disease., According to a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers said that by finding an effective way to stimulate self-regeneration of the liver, some liver transplants could be avoided, and it could help donor liver growth after transplantation, according to an MIT press release.

Liver experts told Fox News that most liver transplant patients often suffer from chronic conditions such as viral hepatitis, primary biliary cholangitis (PBC), cancer, or fatty liver disease. The researchers hope that by learning to harness the regenerative properties of the liver, doctors will be better able to treat chronic liver disease.

View of the MIT campus on July 8, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

View of the MIT campus on July 8, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
(Maddy Meyer/Getty Images)

Even if 70% of the liver is removed, the remaining tissue can recover to its full size within a few months, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Meredith Stone, a 50-year-old health worker who was diagnosed with primary biliary cholangitis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the bile ducts of the liver and damages the liver. Stone was not involved in the study, but shared that she has cirrhosis of the liver despite not drinking alcohol in over 20 years. Stone told Fox News that she is currently taking medicines such as caliper and ursodial hope to slow the progression of the disease and prevent liver transplantation.

“I heard about this study and prayed that these researchers could find a way to help the liver recover. Stone added, “There isn’t much research being done on PBC and I just hope they find a way to help my liver regenerate, as well as other people suffering from devastating liver disease.”


The researchers used studies in mice to understand the regeneration pathways that occur after liver injury or disease. According to the report, one of the key factors is the interconnection between liver cells called hepatocytes and cells that line blood vessels called endothelial cells. The researchers explained that hepatocytes produce factors that help develop blood vessels, and endothelial cells generate growth factors that help hepatocytes proliferate. The researchers also said that previous studies in mice have shown that blood flow is another component that triggers liver regeneration.

3D illustration of anatomy of human body organs (liver)

3D illustration of anatomy of human body organs (liver)

MIT researchers wanted to model the interactions of liver regeneration, so they teamed up with Christopher Chen, MD, William F. Warren Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University, who is developing microfluidic devices with channels that act like blood vessels.

The researchers grew blood vessels along one of these microfluidic channels and then added aggregates derived from liver cells taken from human organ donors.

They designed a chip designed to allow molecules such as growth factors to pass between blood vessels and liver spheroids. This design allowed the researchers to “knock out” the genes of certain cell types and see how this affects the overall regenerative process.

Sangita Bhatia, a member of the Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT and the Institute of Medical Engineering and Science, said in a press release: “Over the years, people have identified various genes that appear to be involved in mouse liver regeneration, and some of They seem important to humans, but they have never been able to figure out all the signals that cause human liver cells to proliferate.”


This regeneration-on-a-chip model showed that increased fluid flow alone did not stimulate liver cells to start dividing, which is part of the cycle associated with liver regeneration. But they found that if they also produced an inflammatory signal called the cytokine IL-1-beta, the liver cells did enter a cycle of division, the report said.

The researchers also blocked a gene in endothelial cells that is responsible for the production of prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), a molecule that is also involved in liver regeneration in zebrafish. By blocking the gene in these cells, they were able to demonstrate that this molecule stimulates human liver cells to enter the cycle of cell division, according to the report.

Liver transplant Surgeons during a liver transplant.

Liver transplant Surgeons during a liver transplant.

the team plans to study some other growth factors and molecules that are produced in their model during liver regeneration. They also hope to find signals that tell the liver when to stop regenerating.

“Right now, when patients with liver failure come in, you have to transplant them because you don’t know if they will recover on their own. But if we knew who had a strong regenerative response, and if we just needed to stabilize them for a while, we could spare these transplant patients,” Bhatia said in an MIT press release.


Bhatia hopes the research team will be able to use the molecules to treat patients with liver failure. The researchers also said that another possibility is that doctors could potentially use biomarkers to determine the likelihood that a patient’s liver will grow on its own.