One of the coolest things about the liver is that it is the only major organ capable of regenerating itself. In fact, during a living donor liver transplant, as little as 1/3 of the living donor’s liver is transplanted and grows back to full size in the recipient within only a few weeks time. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. The liver’s job is to detoxify our bodies, which means that they are constantly processing toxins that would otherwise kill us. Whether it is alcohol, drugs, or simple byproducts of food that we ingest, the liver has to be able to handle removing them from our bloodstream to keep us healthy.
This means that the liver itself is constantly damaged by such toxins, and if it couldn’t repair itself easily we wouldn’t be able to survive. To handle the heavy workload of detoxification the liver is constantly regenerating new, healthy cells to replace those that are damaged or completely dead. When the liver becomes exposed to long-term damage over time, however, it can reduce or completely inhibit the ability for the liver to regenerate. This is what happens during liver failure in the late stages of cirrhosis.
A new medical treatment in early research phases is exploring how to restart liver regeneration in patients with acute liver failure. The research has shown that severe liver injuries leading to cirrhosis cause a chemical signal to trigger senescence throughout the liver, which blocks the regeneration of liver tissue.
Senescence is when the body’s cells become old, tired and stop working properly. It is part of ageing, but the researchers showed severe injuries were like “contagious old age” spreading through the organ.
By using a cancer treatment drug in mice, the researchers were able to “block” the chemical signal that causes the liver regeneration to stop and the mice were able to exhibit normal regeneration even after severe liver damage.
This is potentially fantastic news for those facing liver failure as transplant is currently the only treatment available, and the process is long and complicated. Kickstarting the liver’s regenerative abilities back into action could be a treatment for people with severe NASH and other life-threatening liver conditions.