A potential treatment for sudden liver failure could cut the need for transplants, say scientists at the University of Edinburgh.
The liver has an incredible natural ability to repair itself, but this can be lost in some injuries including severe drug overdoses.
The therapy is a cancer drug that restores this regenerative potential.
The work is at a very early stage, but the team say alternatives to transplant would have a huge impact on patients.
Around 200 people in the UK have sudden life-threatening liver failure each year.
‘I needed a new liver’
Student nurse Kara Watt, 21, needed a liver transplant two years ago.
She was on placement at a care home when she started to feel sick and her face started to go yellow.
Tests identified a problem with her liver function which continued to get worse.
She ended up in intensive care in Edinburgh and was told she needed a new liver. It was “a horrible, horrible thing to hear”, she said.
It is people like Kara whom scientists hope their work will ultimately help.
The team started by examining people’s livers to see why they lose their ability to regenerate.
They discovered severe injuries rapidly triggered a process called senescence throughout the liver.
Senescence is when the body’s cells become old, tired and stop working properly. It is part of ageing, but the researchers showed severe injuries were like “contagious old age” spreading through the organ.
The study, published in Science Translational Medicine, also found a chemical signal that seemed to be responsible.
The researchers then turned to mice and an experimental cancer therapy that could block the signal.
The animals were given a drug overdose that would normally lead to liver failure and death, but with the treatment they survived.
The researchers plan to test the drug on patients soon in the hope it could reduce the need for liver transplants.
A normal life?
Dr Thomas Bird, one of the researchers at the University of Edinburgh, said: “The beauty of this clinically is even if you have massive injury, if the liver is regrown then you have a normal life after that.
“The most obvious thing to is to do now is clinical trials in patients with acute liver failure and see if we can prevent the need for transplant.”
This could reduce pressures on the organ transplant list, but also make a difference to the lives of patients.
Kara is currently taking 13 tablets a day, mostly to prevent her body rejecting her new liver.
She said “If that treatment could help people it would be so beneficial.”
The research group, which also includes the Beatson Institute in Glasgow, is also investigating whether senescence spreads beyond only the liver and could be part of the explanation for multiple organ failure.
Lindsay Keir, from the Wellcome Trust, said the study was “important”.
She added: “The research so far suggests that a medication could be used to treat this condition, avoiding the need for a liver transplant which is a major operation and reducing the demand on the limited supply of livers available for transplant.”