Experimental treatment grows livers from lymph nodes

The first human trial is underway and could transform organ donation if successful.
an yellow-ish bag of liver cells in a suspension.
A cell solution with hepatocytes in a suspension. These liver cells are part of an experimental treatment for those with end-stage liver disease. LyGenesis

A team of scientists is attempting to grow a new liver inside of a human using lymph nodes. While this sounds like science fiction, Pittsburgh-based biotech company LyGenesis announced that a volunteer has received an injection of liver cells from a living donor that could turn one of their lymph nodes into a second and functioning liver.

The experimental procedure took place in Houston on March 25. It is part of a Phase 2a clinical trial that will test this treatment in 12 adults who have end-stage liver disease (ESLD). This illness occurs when the liver is damaged beyond repair, primarily due to chronic liver disease or acute liver failure. Over 50,000 Americans die of chronic liver disease every year. 

Patients with ESLD typically require a liver transplant, but roughly 10,000 people are currently on the waiting list in the United States alone. In 2021, a record of 9,234 liver transplants were performed in the US, according to the federal government’s Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients. LyGensis hopes that this procedure will create the growth of enough liver tissue that patients won’t need a transplant. 

[Related: Swiss researchers kept a donor liver healthy for a remarkable 68 hours.]

“This therapy will potentially be a remarkable regenerative medicine milestone by helping patients with ESLD grow new functional ectopic livers in their own body,” LyGenesis co-founder and CEO Dr. Michael Hufford said in a statement. “If our study is successful and we obtain FDA approval, our allogeneic cell therapy could enable one donated liver to treat many dozens of ESLD patients, which could help to tilt the current organ supply-demand imbalance in favor of patients.”

The technique has been in the works for over a decade. It takes liver cells–or hepatocytes–from a donated organ and injects them into the lymph nodes that are found all over the body. In the lymph nodes, the liver cells will hopefully divide, grow, and develop blood vessels. It targets a group of lymph nodes in the abdomen that are connected to the liver via a system of veins.

According to MIT Technology Review, LyGenesis has tested their approach in mice and pigs, finding that the cells can flourish and form an additional liver that will take over the function of an animal’s failing organ. Chief scientific officer of LyGenesis and University of Pittsburgh pathologist Dr. Eric Lagasse published a study in 2020 that found the pigs regained their liver function following the injections. They also noted that the more severe the damage to the pig’s original liver, the bigger the second livers grew. The pig’s body may be able to recognize the more healthy tissue and give the new liver more responsibilities. 

In the trial procedure, the doctors threaded a thin flexible tube down the end of the patient’s throat through the digestive tract, according to Wired. They then used an ultrasound to identify one of the target lymph nodes and put 50 million hepatocytes into it.

[Related: Surgeons complete first-ever gene-edited pig kidney transplant.]

“LyGenesis’ cell therapy platform represents a truly remarkable potential commercial opportunity and may be transformative for chronic liver failure patients who do not have access to a donor liver,” LyGenesis investor Justin Briggs from Prime Movers Lab said in a statement. “Their use of an endoscopic ultrasound as a low risk and low cost route of cell therapy administration is another way this pioneering technology could provide patients with access to life-saving therapies and address complex medical challenges by upending transplant medicine.”

The results won’t be available for a few months and the team will be monitoring how many cells are required to grow a liver that is large enough to filter blood and produce bile. If it works, it could mean a major change for the treatment of liver disease, which affects roughly 4.5 million people in the United States.