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Lab grown ‘mini-organs’ used in liver repair breakthrough

Two experts from Addenbrooke’s hospital are part of a pioneering Cambridge team working on ways to repair human organs – by growing replacement parts in a lab.

Three men stand facing the camera behind a liver perfusion machine.
Picture shows, from left, Addenbrooke’s consultant interventional radiologist and clinical director Dr Teik Choon See, Dr Fotis Sampaziotis and Kourosh Saeb-Parsy with the perfusion machine. This image was taken pre-COVID.

Transplant surgeon, Kourosh Saeb-Parsy, and hepatologist, Dr Fotis Sampaziotis, together with Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute Professor, Ludovic Vallier, have used cutting edge techniques to grow bile duct organoids – often referred to as ‘mini-organs’ – in the lab.

Now, in a scientific breakthrough, and in collaboration with other Addenbrooke’s departments including surgery, medicine, hepatology, radiology, histopathology, biochemistry–pathology, these organoids were shown to repair damaged human livers. 

Bile ducts act as the liver’s waste disposal system, and damage to them account for a third of adult liver transplants and 70 per cent of liver transplants in children. At the moment there are no other treatments available and a shortage of healthy liver donors means patients often have to wait a long time for a transplant.

This latest research, published today in the science journal ‘Science’, paves the way for cell therapies to treat liver disease.  It means ‘mini-bile ducts’ grown in the lab could be used as replacement parts to restore a patient’s own liver to health.  Alternatively they could be used to repair livers that have been donated for transplant - but which aren’t 100% healthy. 

It’s hoped this breakthrough could be applied to other organs and diseases and could lead to further developments in cell-based therapy.

Mr Saeb-Parsy, who is study joint senior author and also research group leader at the Department of Surgery at the University of Cambridge, said:

This is an important step towards allowing us to use organs previously deemed unsuitable for transplantation. In future, it could help reduce the pressure on the transplant waiting list.

Mr Saeb-Parsy

First author, Dr Sampaziotis, who is also a clinician-scientist from the Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, added: “Given the chronic shortage of donor organs, it’s important to look at ways of repairing damaged organs, or even provide alternatives to organ transplantation.  We’ve been using organoids in the lab for several years now, but we have always hoped to be able to use them to repair human damaged tissue. Ours is the first study to show, in principle, that this should be possible.”

Mini organs | Dr Fotios Sampaziotis

Mini organs | Dr Fotios Sampaziotis



The most significant aspect is that, in science, what we have been always dreaming about is using cells, which we grow in the lab, to repair human organs.

What we have managed to do for the first time is to show that this is possible. 

We use this technology, called organoid technology, where we grow mini organs in the lab. We claim the cells of these mini organs, inject them in the damaged human organ, and show we can repair it. 

This is the first time we can do this in a human organ.

This is exactly what we need, this has always been our dream, to show that our science is applicable and safe in humans, because this allows us to take the next step forward to approach the regulators, and start moving quickly towards clinical trials in the future.

Professor Vallier, who is also a joint senior author, said:

We have further work to do to test the safety and viability of this approach, but hope we will be able to transfer this into the clinic in the coming years.

Professor Vallier

The research was supported by the European Research Council, the National Institute for Health Research and the Academy of Medical Sciences.

A copy of the study is available to download here.