NUS pharmaceutical scientists, together with clinicians from the National University Health System (NUHS), have developed a nanomaterial-based hydrogel that encourages amniotic epithelial cells (a type of stem cell) to grow into mature liver cells.

The liver performs many essential functions related to digestion, metabolism, immunity and storage of nutrients within the body. It is the body's "chemical factory," producing many important proteins and nutrients. It also breaks down toxic substances into harmless chemicals in the body. Not surprisingly, the majority of substances that enter the body are processed through the liver.

This is why a pathological condition in this organ is so deleterious and leaves very few therapeutic options. Liver diseases such as acute liver failure and liver cancer are increasingly prevalent health issues with no clear therapeutic solutions. Apart from a liver transplant, there are limited therapeutic options for the patient. However, there is a shortage of healthy livers from donors.

Artificial Matrix

Researchers collaborate to develop a hydrogel that can mimic the stiffness level and nanoscale surface roughness found in healthy human livers. When amniotic epithelial cells are grown onto this artificial matrix, they are stimulated to develop into mature liver cells. These liver cells can potentially be used in cell therapy and tissue engineering to help patients with liver conditions.

These findings are built on an earlier discovery by Prof Ho and his collaborators. They had found that, when mesenchymal stem cells are grown on a carbon nanotube-plated surface, they catalyzed the transformation of stem cells into muscle cells even in the absence of additional growth factors.

Carbon Nanotube's Surface

Using this strategy, the team adapted the original carbon nanotubes' surface by incorporating them into a polyacrylamide gel. The idea is to recreate a softer matrix that better mimics that of a healthy liver to influence the transformation of the AECs into liver cells.

Prof Ho said, "This effort yielded very encouraging results. We found that the AECs acquired significant liver cell characteristics with the corresponding loss of stem cell markers. These cells demonstrated liver-specific functions in terms of expressing albumin and drug metabolizing capabilities."

"The goal now is to expand the characterization of the liver function of these cells and to scale up production so that this can potentially be a sustainable resource for clinical applications."