11:42pm Thursday 12 December 2019

Liver cells from stem cells to test new medicines

The team from the University of Bath is funded by ‘Stem Cells for Safer Medicines‘ – a public-private partnership in which BBSRC is one of a consortium of public funding bodies coordinated by the Technology Strategy Board. Other funders include AstraZeneca, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the Department of Health, GlaxoSmithKline, the Medical Research Council (MRC), Roche, and the Scottish Government.

Copyright: University of Bath

Hepatocyte cells, the main tissue of the liver, which make up 70 – 80% of the liver’s cytoplasmic mass. Copyright: University of Bath

Stem cells are able to develop into more specialised cells and scientists believe they have huge potential to treat diseases or injuries that don’t currently have a cure.

The current method for developing precursor liver cells involves many different steps and uses a variety of biological agents.

The new process is much simpler, relying on just one small molecule, called 1M, being added to stem cell cultures. This treatment causes the stem cells to turn into precursors of liver cells.

Professor Melanie Welham and Dr David Tosh co-supervise the research. Professor Welham said: “The new method we have defined through our research is much simpler than previous procedures, so should reduce the cost of turning stem cells into precursor liver cells.

Copyright: University of Bath

University of Bath scientists have developed a more simple process to create precursor liver cells, allowing the scale on which they can be created to be increased.
Copyright: University of Bath

“This will allow the scale on which precursor liver cells are created to be more easily increased.”

Scientists are keen to develop liver cells that can be used to test the safety of new medical drugs. Even everyday painkillers are known to have toxic effects on the liver if taken in the wrong quantity, and the tests currently used don’t always accurately predict what will happen in humans.

Therefore, an improved supply of liver cells that can be used in testing the safety of new medicines will allow pharmaceutical companies to improve and strengthen the testing of drugs for human use.

Dr Tosh said: “This is a significant breakthrough in the field of stem cell research and will impact on the pharmaceutical industry and the way in which medicines are tested.

“There is, however, a great deal of work to still be done. Until now our research has focused on the early stages of liver cell development and there is still a lot of research to do to expand what has been found so far and to generate fully functioning liver cells.”

The funding from ‘Stem Cells for Safer Medicine’ supports a five-year research programme, currently just starting its third year. Moving into phase two of the project the research team will now focus on improving the systems in the next stage of liver cell production.

The funding has allowed Professor Welham and Dr Tosh to recruit post doctorate researcher Dr Heather Bone to the project, and two new research posts are to be created for phase two.

See the full paper in the Journal of Cell Science – ‘Let there be liver‘.



BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

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Katrina James, University of Bath Press Office

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