Space technology helps create artificial livers

British technology developed for use in space could help speed up the creation of lab-grown livers. 

Liver cells can be artificially grown around a fibre mesh.

A group of scientists have found a way of mimicking the liver’s natural cellular “skeleton”, which they say could make it easier to produce liver cells to help restore certain organ functions or provide an alternative to animal drug testing.

The researchers use a technique known as “electrospinning” to produce a mesh of tiny polymer fibres 100 times thinner than human hair, around which liver cells can then be grown.

‘The challenge is to create the right kind of environment for cells to grow,’ said Ann Kramer, CEO of The Electrospinning Company, a spinout from the government’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) that provided the technology to produce the fibres.

Electrospinning is a process invented over 100 years ago that involves using an electric voltage to draw out a very thin fibre of material from a solution into a rotating drum where it forms a mesh.

The Electrospinning Company used a nozzle created by the STFC for space technology applications to help feed the solution into the drum in the most precise way possible.

This, together with the right chemistry and environmental conditions, enabled them to produce an irregular mesh that mimicked the liver’s extracellular matrix, a kind of skeleton made from fibrous proteins that provides cells with both physical support and allows them to communicate with one another.

Ann Kramer, CEO of The Electrospinning Company.

‘Our partners at the University of Pisa have decellularised a liver to get down to this skeleton so we can copy it,’ said Kramer.

‘If you look at our mesh with an electron microscope it looks very similar in terms of things like porosity. We’re also using biocompatible materials such as polylactic acid that have already been approved for use in implants.’

Although growing an entire liver in the lab is a long way off, Kramer and the other partners, which include Manchester University and the German firm Medisight, hope to produce a prototype drug-testing platform within the next 12 months.

Using clumps of liver cells in the lab could provide a more efficient way of testing new drugs than using the less representative artificial liver models that currently exist and a more accurate and less controversial method than using animals.

A more ambitious goal is to turn these cells into “organoids”, miniature nascent versions of an organ, that could then be implanted into damaged or malfunctioning livers, potentially enabling doctors to restore some of the organs’ abilities.

The group is currently working to produce an organoid that can restore the liver’s ability – which is missing in haemophiliacs – to produce a chemical called “factor VIII”, which is responsible for blood clotting.