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Liver from Scratch

miniliver.jpg Well, okay, not scratch but something even better -- stem cells harvested from umbilical cord blood:

British scientists have grown the world's first artificial liver from stem cells in a breakthrough that will one day provide entire organs for transplant.

The technique that created the 'mini-liver', currently the size of a one pence piece, will be developed to create a full-size functioning liver.

Described as a 'Eureka moment' by the Newcastle University researchers, the tissue was created from blood taken from babies' umbilical cords just a few minutes after birth.

Bear in mind, these are small pieces of liver tissue. A fully grown and transplantable liver is still some years away. Even so, this is an enormous step in that direction. Plus, such tissues have uses other than transplantation. They can be subjected to tests that otherwise may have required the use of an animal liver. Not only does this spare the animal subject, results from living human liver tissues will obviously be more relevant and useful.

It's been about six months since we reported on the early success in transplanting lab-grown bladders into human patients. At the time, we wrote:

[A]s Virginia Postrel commented a while back when preparing for kidney donor surgery, this is a procedure that may not be around that much longer. With bladders grown successfully, and hearts and other organs under development, I don't think it will be long before someone in [that] position will have options not quite available today: like getting a new kidney without anyone having to give one up -- a kidney that won't require immune system suppressants to avoid rejection.

It's also satisfying to see something that I thought was very likely come to pass. Here we see individualized organ farming/harvesting without any stem cells/bastocysts/human beings with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereunto (whatever terms suits you) being harmed in the process.

In defending therapeutic cloning some time ago, I wrote:

There is an enormous difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning. The latter need not require the production of an entire "replacement human;" it may be possible to grow "replacement organs" on their own, or to develop stem cell lines that can be used to treat a wide variety of illnesses and injuries.

Several critics took me to task for this statement. One of them responded as follows:

Therapeutic cloning does require the creation of a whole human embryo... There is no method currently in existence or on the drawing board that would let you grow organs directly, or that could get you to stem cells without an embryo--a replacement human.

I may have bee wrong in my use of the word "cloning," but otherwise my statement seems to hold up pretty well. Here we have embryonic stem cells -- or something much like them -- gathered without an embryo being destroyed and organs grown directly. But maybe my critic was correct. Maybe two and a half years ago, this capability wasn't even "on the drawing board."

In which case, look at what an amazing difference two and a half years can make!


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I think your critic was always wrong.

Some of my conservative brethren are so indoctrinated with the idea that stem cell research is bad that any advance in stem cell technology is greated as bad news EVEN when the technology doesn't require the sacrifice of an embryo.

The answer is education. When these well-meaning people realize that no embryo is being sacrificed AND lives are being saved/improved, opposition will evaporate as quickly as the initial uneasiness with test tube babies.

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