Artificial human bile ducts have been grown and transplanted into mice by Medical Research Council-funded scientists, paving the way for the improved treatment of childhood liver diseases.

The University of Cambridge researchers took healthy cells from bile ducts, called cholangiocytes, and grew these into functioning 3D duct structures known as biliary organoids. When transplanted into mice, the scientists observed that the organoids assembled themselves into bile duct-like structures

Collaborating with colleagues in the university’s engineering department, the team then tested whether the biliary organoids could be grown on a 3D structure made from collagen, a natural substance in the body, which could be shaped into a tube. After four weeks, the cells had fully covered the miniature scaffolding, resulting in artificial tubes with the main features of a normal, functioning bile duct. These artificial ducts were then successfully used to replace damaged bile ducts in mice.

Bile duct disorders are the leading cause for liver transplantation in children and the research shows that it is possible to generate and transplant human artificial bile ducts, offering hope for the future treatment of life-threatening childhood diseases such as biliary atresia.

The research was led by Professor Ludovic Vallier and Dr Fotios Sampaziotis from the Wellcome – MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute and Dr Kourosh Saeb-Parsy from the University of Cambridge.

Dr Sampaziotis said: “The capacity of these cholangiocyte organoids to grow successfully on biodegradable scaffolds, organise into functional cells and rescue bile duct function illustrates the power of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.”

Dr Rob Buckle, Chief Science Officer at the Medical Research Council, said: “These research findings pave the way for exciting new regenerative medicine treatments for this life-threatening childhood liver disease. The approach to engineering replacement tissue is also likely to have an impact for many other disorders.”