The liver is the largest organ in the body, responsible for filtering toxins from the blood, aiding digestion and helping to fight infection. It is also the only organ that can regenerate itself after damage, and it can withstand a lot. However, when liver damage occurs, the normal repair function is affected and scar tissue develops. Liver failure occurs when the damage becomes so severe that the liver can no longer function. This can be the result of an acute health condition that develops in a matter of days or a chronic condition that evolves slowly over time. The causes can include alcohol, viruses, obesity, genetics, autoimmune diseases, drugs, toxins and cancer. Currently, the only treatment for liver failure is a liver transplant.
Currently there are no Health Canada or FDA approved stem cell treatments available for liver failure, but researchers believe that stem cells may be useful in helping to overcome liver damage. While hepatic (liver) stem cells have been found in mice and successfully grown in the lab, this is not the case with their human counterparts. Further challenges are that not enough is known about how the cells in the liver function, what other kinds of stem cells might be used to help reverse the damage, how to effectively scale up the cells for transplant, and even the method of transplantation. It may take decades before these challenges are solved and stem cell therapies become a possible option to treat liver disease.