While livers can regenerate themselves, scientists have been frustrated in their attempts to grow liver cells outside the body—until now, wired.co.uk reports. Publishing their findings in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, researchers have discovered a dozen compounds that can both help liver cells maintain normal function in a lab setting and prompt them to grow new tissue. The findings have implications for people living with hepatitis C, which can cause serious liver damage, including fibrosis, cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure.

In previous experiments, one of the scientists on the research team was able to keep liver cells called hepatocytes living outside the body by mixing them with mouse fibroblast cells. In the new study, the researchers grew cells in layered form with the mouse cells. Then they tested how 12,500 different chemicals affected liver-cell growth and performance. The investigators identified 12 compounds that either helped the liver maintain the most important liver functions or promoted liver cells to multiply, or achieved both tasks. From that list of compounds, two showed the greatest promise.

Next the researchers treated pluripotent stem cells with the pair of compounds to see if they could promote hepatocyte growth. While the cells did not mature entirely, the treatment prompted their maturation to an unprecedented extent.

The scientists are planning to treat liver cells with these compounds, embed them in polymer tissue scaffolds and implant them in mice in hopes of showing they can produce replacement liver tissue. Another research avenue is to investigate whether the two identified compounds might be developed into a therapy that would help people regenerate their own liver tissues.

To read a release about the study, click here.
To read the study abstract, click here.