Liver failure is a serious, potentially fatal condition in which large swaths of liver cells become dysfunctional and die. Liver failure is the result of several conditions including chronic alcohol consumption, exposure to drugs that are toxic to the liver (e.g. acetaminophen), autoimmune diseases, or infections such as hepatitis C. Liver failure causes several metabolic abnormalities including dangerously low levels of sodium, potassium, and phosphate in the blood. Moreover, four in 10 people with liver failure have trouble regulating their blood glucose levels, which can cause profound hypoglycemia. Since the liver detoxifies the blood, when the liver fails, patients can experience confusion from excessive amounts of ammonia and other substances in the blood. Seizures are also possible.
Short of liver transplantation, there are very few treatments for liver failure. Most treatments focus on restoring sodium, potassium, phosphate, and glucose levels in the blood, and bringing down ammonia levels. Fortunately, experiments show that human mesenchymal stem cells may be a promising treatment for liver failure.
Researchers enrolled 43 people with acute-on-chronic liver failure caused by hepatitis B infection. In this group, 24 patients were treated with mesenchymal stem cells derived from human umbilical cord and 19 patients received a saline solution. The groups received stem cells or placebo, respectively, three times every four weeks. Patients treated with mesenchymal stem cells showed better measures of liver function than those who received placebo. Livers of the patients treated with stem cells produced much more protein, albumin, and clotting factors, and were better able to process bilirubin. Importantly, no significant side effects were observed during the trial.
Given the serious nature of liver failure and the lack of effective treatments (besides liver transplant), this research is incredibly exciting. It offers hope that through further research scientists will be able to use mesenchymal stem cells to change the outcomes of people with acute-on-chronic liver failure.