OCT 23, 2014 12:00 AM PDT

The Ultimate Act of Recycling: Using Tonsil Stem Cells to Repair Liver Damage

WRITTEN BY: Judy O'Rourke
It's impossible to overstate the importance of having a healthy liver, but I'd be hard-pressed to extol the virtues of tonsils. Tonsils are frequently the first to go, if while growing up, you were prone to sore throats.

Scientists have caught on, and are tapping cells from one to help the other.

First, a recap: The liver is a hefty organ situated on the right side of the stomach, encased by the rib cage and weighing in at around 3 pounds. It's comprised of two sections, a right and left lobe. Its key task is filtering blood flowing from the digestive tract before sending it along elsewhere in the body. The liver rids us of chemicals and metabolizes drugs, discharging bile that makes it way to the intestines. It also generates proteins that help clot our blood. Liver failure can be life-threatening (other serious conditions include hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer) and scant options exist for repairing it.

The tonsils, a twosome of soft tissue masses situated at the back of the throat, are in the lymphatic system, but yanking them out does not appear to make us more vulnerable to infection.

The researchers note the accepted approach for treating liver failure and serious liver disease is a partial or complete liver transplant. One problem though is a case of supply and demand-more people need a new liver than the available supply. And, they say, surgery is costly and comes with risks of its own.

One option in the works is transplanting liver cells. This could be accomplished using adult stem cells to make liver cells. Stem cells from bone marrow might also be used, but may have limitations.

The researchers found another source of adult stem cells that could be mined-tonsils. Thousands of people undergo a tonsillectomy each year, and the tissue is just thrown away. The scientists faced a challenge, namely, growing the cells on a 3-D scaffold that acts like real liver tissue. They set to work.

The strategy was to encapsulate stem cells from tonsils in a heat-sensitive liquid that morphs into gel at body temperature. The researchers mixed in growth factors to coax the stem cells to become liver cells. They heated the mixture to a normal body temperature. This approach yielded a 3-D, biodegradable gel that held functioning liver cells.

The scientists say this process holds potential- with some additional tweaking to arrive at optimal conditions-as an injectable tissue engineering technique to treat damaged livers with no surgery involved.

More on this can be found in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, a journal of the American Chemical Society. The researchers are Seung-Jin Kim , Min Hee Park , Hyo Jung Moon , Jin Hye Park , Du Young Ko , and Byeongmoon Jeong, Department of Chemistry and Nano Science, Ewha Womans University, Seoul, Korea. The article is titled "Polypeptide Thermogels as a Three Dimensional Culture Scaffold for Hepatogenic Differentiation of Human Tonsil-Derived Mesenchymal Stem Cells"
About the Author
  • Judy O'Rourke worked as a newspaper reporter before becoming chief editor of Clinical Lab Products magazine. As a freelance writer today, she is interested in finding the story behind the latest developments in medicine and science, and in learning what lies ahead.
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