60-Second Science

Little Liver Leaves Big Livers Lively

A tiny model liver made from real liver cells may help to better predict drug toxicities. Cynthia Graber reports.

Pharmaceutical companies sometimes have to pull new drugs off the market because they harm our livers.  The drugs may have been tested on liver cells from rats, or on human cells that are nearly dead.  But these kinds of tests do a poor job of mimicking real livers.

Now researchers at MIT have developed a better method.  They’ve created a colony of human liver cells that act like the real thing.  The research was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.  The cell colonies are only 500 millionths of a meter in diameter.  Researchers arrange the cells on a plate in much the same way as copper wires are placed on computer chips.

These micro livers mimic the actions of real livers—including producing
enzymes necessary to break down drugs and other toxins.  The tiny organs last for six weeks.  So they can evaluate the effects of drugs over a longer time period than current tests.  A start-up company has licensed the technology and is preparing it for market.  The little livers could be cheaper and more accurate than drug tests now used.

-- Cynthia Graber

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