WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Scientists at Wake Forest University have engineered what they call a “miniature” liver in a lab that functions like the human organ.

It’s the latest tissue breakthrough at the , which in 2006 reported the growth and transplant of bladders into humans. Anthony Atala, MD, the director of the institute, is a leading pioneer in the field of regenerative science.

Researchers are reporting their findings Sunday at the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases as well as in the journal Hepatology.

These miniature livers function “at least in a laboratory setting,” the university said. Researchers plan now to study whether the livers will work after being transplanted in an animal model.

The livers were grown from human liver cells and are 1 inch in diameter and weigh some 20 ounces, the university said. In order to perform successfully in humans, an engineered liver would have to weigh at least 1 pound, the scientists said.

The achievement could lead to breakthroughs in treatments of people with liver disease and other ailments.

“We are excited about the possibilities this research represents, but must stress that we’re at an early stage and many technical hurdles must be overcome before it could benefit patients,” said Shay Soker, a professor of regenerative medicine who is the project director, in a statement. “Not only must we learn how to grow billions of liver cells at one time in order to engineer livers large enough for patients, but we must determine whether these organs are safe to use in patients.”

The miniature livers were produced after animal livers were treated to remove all its cells in a process called decellularization that left what scientists called a “skeleton” support structure. Immature human liver cells and cells that line blood vessels were then added to the structure to the network of blood vessels left in the animal livers.

The skeleton and cells were then placed into a so-called bioreactor that provided nutrients and oxygen.

Institute researchers are working on 22 different kinds of cells and organs:

  • Kidney
  • Esophagus
  • Bladder
  • Smooth Muscle
  • Cartilage
  • Urethra
  • Ureter
  • Vessels
  • Salivary glands
  • Trachea
  • Bone
  • Breast
  • Skeletal Muscle
  • Lung
  • Retina
  • Uterus
  • Heart
  • Testes
  • Nerve
  • Liver
  • Pancreas
  • Genitalia

For the complete announcement about the miniature livers,

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