Using stem cells to take an inside approach to fixing damaged livers

Often on the Stem Cellar we write about work that is in a clinical trial. But getting research to that stage takes years and years of dedicated work. Over the next few months we are going to profile some of the scientists we fund who are doing Discovery, or early stage research, to highlight the importance of this work in developing the treatments that could ultimately save lives.

 This first profile is by Pat Olson, Ph.D., CIRM’s Vice President of Discovery & Translation

liver

Most of us take our liver for granted.  We don’t think about the fact that our liver carries out more than 500 functions in our bodies such as modifying and removing toxins, contributing to digestion and energy production, and making substances that help our blood to clot.  Without a liver we probably wouldn’t live more than a few days.

Our liver typically functions well but certain toxins, viral infections, long-term excess alcohol consumption and metabolic diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes can have devastating effects on it.  Under these conditions, functional liver cells, called hepatocytes, die and are replaced with cells called myofibroblasts.  Myofibroblasts are cells that secrete excess collagen leading to fibrosis, a form of scarring, throughout the liver.  Eventually, a liver transplant is required but the number of donor livers available for transplant is small and the number of persons needing a functional liver is large.  Every year in the United States,  around 6,000 patients receive a new liver and more than 35,000 patients die of liver disease.

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willenbring photo

Dr. Holger Willenbring

Dr. Holger Willenbring, a physician scientist at UCSF, is one of the CIRM-funded researchers pursuing a stem cell/regenerative medicine approach to discover a treatment for patients with severe liver disease.  There are significant challenges to treating liver disease including getting fully multi-functional hepatocytes and getting them to engraft and/or grow sufficiently to achieve adequate mass for necessary liver functions.

In previous CIRM–funded discovery research, Dr. Willenbring and his team showed that they could partially reprogram human fibroblasts (the most common cell found in connective tissue) and then turn them into immature hepatocytes.  (see our Spotlight on Liver Disease video from 2012 featuring Dr. Willenbring.) These immature hepatocytes, when transplanted into an immune-deficient mouse model of human liver failure, were shown to mature over time into hepatocytes that were comparable to normal human hepatocytes both in their gene expression and their function.

This was an important finding in that it suggested that the liver environment in a living animal (in vivo), rather than in a test tube (in vitro) in the laboratory, is important for full multi-functional maturation of hepatocytes.  The study also showed that these transplanted immature human hepatocytes could proliferate and improve the survival of this mouse model of chronic human liver disease.  But, even though this model was designed to emphasizes the growth of functional human hepatocytes, the number of cells generated was not great enough to suggest that transplantation could be avoided

A new approach

Dr. Willenbring and his team are now taking the novel approach of direct reprogramming inside the mouse.  With this approach, he seeks to avoid the challenge of low engraftment and proliferation of transplanted hepatocytes generated in the lab and transplanted. Instead, they aim to take advantage of the large number of myofibroblasts in the patient’s scarred liver by turning them directly into hepatocytes.

Recently, he and his team have shown proof-of principle that they can deliver genes to myofibroblasts and turn them into hepatocytes in a mouse. In addition these in vivo myofibroblasts-derived hepatocytes are multi-functional, and can multiply in number, and can even reverse fibrosis in a mouse with liver fibrosis.

From mice to men (women too)

Our latest round of funding for Dr. Willenbring has the goal of moving and extending these studies into human cells by improving the specificity and effectiveness of reprogramming of human myofibroblasts into hepatocytes inside the animal, rather than the lab.

He and his team will then conduct studies to test the therapeutic effectiveness and initial safety of this approach in preclinical models. The ultimate goal is to generate a potential therapy that could eventually provide hope for the 35,000 patients who die of liver disease each year in the US.

 

 

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New Regenerative Liver Cells Identified

It’s common knowledge that your liver is a champion when it comes to regeneration. It’s actually one of the few internal organs in the human body that can robustly regenerate itself after injury. Other organs such as the heart and lungs do not have the same regenerative response and instead generate scar tissue to protect the injured area. Liver regeneration is very important to human health as the liver conducts many fundamental processes such as making proteins, breaking down toxic substances, and making new chemicals required to digest your food.

The human liver.

The human liver

Over the years, scientists have suggested multiple theories for why the liver has this amazing regenerative capacity. What’s known for sure is that mature hepatocytes (the main cell type in the liver) will respond to injury by dividing and proliferating to make more hepatocytes. In this way, the liver can regrow up to 70% of itself within a matter of a few weeks. Pretty amazing right?

So what is the source of these regenerative hepatocytes? It was originally thought that adult liver stem cells (called oval cells) were the source, but this theory has been disproved in the past few years. The answer to this million-dollar question, however, likely comes from a study published last week in the journal Cell.

Hybrid hepatocytes (shown in green) divide and regenerate the liver in response to injury. (Image source: Font-Burgada et al., 2015)

Hybrid hepatocytes (green) divide and regenerate the liver in response to injury. (Image source: Font-Burgada et al., 2015)

A group at UCSD led by Dr. Michael Karin reported a new population of liver cells called “hybrid hepatocytes”. These cells were discovered in an area of the healthy liver called the portal triad. Using mouse models, the CIRM-funded group found that hybrid hepatocytes respond to chemical-induced injury by massively dividing to replace damaged or lost liver tissue. When they took a closer look at these newly-identified cells, they found that hybrid hepatocytes were very similar to normal hepatocytes but differed slightly with respect to the types of liver genes that they expressed.

A common concern associated with regenerative tissue and cells is the development of cancer. Actively dividing cells in the liver can acquire genetic mutations that can cause hepatocellular carcinoma, a common form of liver cancer.

What makes this group’s discovery so exciting is that they found evidence that hybrid hepatocytes do not cause cancer in mice. They showed this by transplanting a population of hybrid hepatocytes into multiple mouse models of liver cancer. When they dissected the liver tumors from these mice, none of the transplanted hybrid cells were present. They concluded that hybrid hepatocytes are robust and efficient at regenerating the liver in response to injury, and that they are a safe and non-cancer causing source of regenerating liver cells.

Currently, liver transplantation is the only therapy for end-stage liver diseases (often caused by cirrhosis or hepatitis) and aggressive forms of liver cancer. Patients receiving liver transplants from donors have a good chance of survival, however donated livers are in short supply, and patients who actually get liver transplants have to take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their lives. Stem cell-derived liver tissue, either from embryonic or induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), has been proposed as an alternative source of transplantable liver tissue. However, safety of iPSC-derived tissue for clinical applications is still being addressed due to the potential risk of tumor formation caused by iPSCs that haven’t fully matured.

This study gives hope to the future of cell-based therapies for liver disease and avoids the current hurdles associated with iPSC-based therapy. In a press release from UCSD, Dr. Karin succinctly summarized the implications of their findings.

“Hybrid hepatocytes represent not only the most effective way to repair a diseased liver, but also the safest way to prevent fatal liver failure by cell transplantation.”

This exciting and potentially game-changing research was supported by CIRM funding. The first author, Dr. Joan Font-Burgada, was a CIRM postdoctoral scholar from 2012-2014. He reached out to CIRM regarding his publication and provided the following feedback:

CIRM Postdoctoral Fellow Jean Font-Burgada

CIRM postdoctoral scholar Joan Font-Burgada

“I’m excited to let you know that work CIRM funded through the training program will be published in Cell. I would like to express my most sincere gratitude for the opportunity I was given. I am convinced that without CIRM support, I could not have finished my project. Not only the training was excellent but the resources I was offered allowed me to work with enough independence to explore new avenues in my project that finally ended up in this publication.”

 

We at CIRM are always thrilled and proud to hear about these success stories. More importantly, we value feedback from our grantees on how our funding and training has supported their science and helped them achieve their goals. Our mission is to develop stem cell therapies for patients with unmet medical needs, and studies such as this one are an encouraging sign that we are making progress towards to achieving this goal.


Related links:

UCSD Press Release

CIRM Spotlight on Liver Disease Research

CIRM Spotlight on Living with Liver Disease