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Research Offers Promise for Cirrhosis Treatment

Protein stops liver scarring in mice, study finds

THURSDAY, Dec. 27 (HealthDay News) -- New findings about the inner workings of cells may be bringing scientists one step closer to reversing the scarring of the liver known as cirrhosis.

Currently, the best treatment for advanced cirrhosis is a liver transplant, an option that's often not available. But newly released research with mice suggests that a drug-based strategy could reprogram cells and make it "feasible to treat it [cirrhosis] and prevent it without a transplant," said study lead author Martina Buck, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego.

There's no guarantee, however, that the treatment will work in humans. And Buck said it could take at least five to 10 years for a drug to reach the market if a pharmaceutical company became interested in pursuing it.

But the research might also lead to new treatments for other conditions that lead to excess tissue scarring, such as viral hepatitis, fatty liver disease, pulmonary fibrosis, scleroderma and burns, the study authors said.

At issue is scarring in the liver, an organ that filters out toxins and breaks down medications. The scarring is a "natural healing process," Buck said, but overuse of alcohol and diseases like hepatitis can make the scarring become chronic and lead to major health problems like cancer.

In the new study, Buck and her colleagues focused on liver cells that transform into scar tissue when activated. They used mice with severe liver fibrosis that was brought about by chronic exposure to a toxin known to cause liver damage. Next, they genetically engineered mice to activate a protein that provides protection against scarring.

The researchers found that the protein seemed to protect the mice from scarring, and "if you wait until [a mouse] has cirrhosis before you treat him, he will actually regress. It's not just a preventive thing. It's an actual treatment," Buck said.

The study was published Dec. 26 in the journal Public Library of Science Online.

Research into the workings of liver cells in people suggests that the treatment might also work in humans, Buck said. Potentially, the treatment could be converted into a drug that could be given orally or intravenously, she said.

Dr. Scott Friedman, chief of the Division of Liver Diseases at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, said that while the study is useful, it's "not a major breakthrough" considering the many research projects in a similar stage of development.

Still, he said, it "builds on 20 years of very exciting research" that looks at how cells create scarring in the liver.

More information

Learn more about cirrhosis from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

SOURCES: Martina Buck, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine, University of California, San Diego; Scott L. Friedman, M.D., Fishberg Professor of Medicine, and chief, Division of Liver Diseases, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City; Dec. 26, 2007, Public Library of Science Online

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