Liver cell implant saves baby

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  • Published 18.11.11

New Delhi, Nov. 17: An Indian-origin liver specialist in the UK has claimed to have saved a baby’s life by using a cell implantation technique that was previously untested on humans.

Anil Dhawan and his colleagues at the Institute for Liver Studies at King’s College Hospital, London, carried out the procedure, which could become an alternative to liver transplants if planned clinical trials are successful.

Dhawan said his team implanted liver cells coated with an algal product into the abdomen of an 11-day-old boy who was suffering from acute liver failure caused by a viral infection.

The cells from a donor cadaver, coated with the algal compound called alginate, were intended to support the boy’s liver functions while his immune system eliminated the virus and his liver regenerated. The implanted cells synthesised proteins and processed toxins, serving as a temporary liver.

“The alginate acts as a protective shield, preventing the implanted cells from being attacked by the infant’s immune system,” said Dhawan, the leader of the hepatocyte (liver cell) transplantation division at the institute.

Dhawan had grown up in the village of Chauntra, Himachal Pradesh, and studied at medical colleges in Shimla and Chandigarh before moving to King’s College in 1992 to specialise in hepatocyte therapy.

“The infant who received the cell implantation more than six months ago, when he was only 11 days old, is now well and doing fine,” Dhawan said. The only other option for the boy was a liver transplant.

Dhawan said he had for several years been studying the possible use of hepatocytes encapsulated in alginate beads for implantation in the abdomen of patients with acute liver failure.

The technique itself was developed by other researchers for non-therapeutic applications. German researchers, for instance, had six years ago encapsulated 18 million liver cells in alginate to study the body’s enzymes.

The King’s College Hospital team has cautioned that a series of clinical trials would need to be conducted to assess its effectiveness in a large number of recipients.

“We’ve already begun planning these clinical trials,” Dhawan told The Telegraph over the phone. He declined to speculate how many individuals might be included in the first set of trials or how long it might take before the results are available.

He said the clinical trials would be conducted in the UK. “A new technique has to be tested in the country where it was developed,” Dhawan said.

The child’s father said his son was “a miracle boy”.

“He started to get better within 48 hours of the treatment — and our hopes returned. It is brilliant,” he told PTI.

Andrew Langford of the British Liver Trust said: “The principle of this new technique is certainly ground-breaking, and we would welcome the results of further clinical trials to see if it could become a standard treatment for both adults and children.”