Liver disease is extremely difficult to treat. It can result from both genetic and environmental factors, including a poor diet or excess alcohol use. When there is severe damage to the liver, one of the only viable options is partial or full transplants. However this isn't always easy as there is an extreme lack of donor organs. Additionally, all organ transplants come with a difficult set of risks and side effects.

Looking into the future, a major hope is that stem cell therapies will address many of these challenges. Despite certain ethical concerns related to embryonic stem cells, many other areas of stem cell research are thriving. In fact, embryonic stem cells would not be extremely useful even if they were fully utilized. For maximum effectiveness, medical practitioners nee a way to use a patient's own stem cells, reducing any risk of rejection.

Toward that goal, many are looking at induced pluripotent stem cells. These are derived from average adults human cells and converted into something that has very similar flexibility and potential to embryonic stem cells. Still other groups are focusing more on adult stem cells. Working with and enhancing the body's natural supply of various stem cells to develop effective treatments.

Researchers from South Korea recently made a breakthrough related to that field, and toward the goal of regenerating the liver. (via Plos One) Specifically they used mesenchymal stem cells derived from adipose tissue. To translate that, stem cells found in structural tissue and derived from fat.

Normally these adult stem cells only produce other kinds of mesenchymal tissue, such as fat, bone, etc. However, previous work had shown that they had the potential to differentiate into radically different cell types, including neurons and liver cells. The researchers found that a way to effectively to produce liver cells, a.k.a. hepatocytes, from these mesenchymal stem cells was the overexpression of two genes.

The genes were Oct4 and Sox2, both related to upper level cellular regulation. And inducing overexpression resulted in a gradual shift to more liver like behavior. Eventually resulting in functional hepatocytes that could both store the glycogen and produce urea. Both some of the primary functions the liver performs.

Further development is obviously necessary, but the hope is to eventually develop an effective treatment in humans. Stem cells from fat, or other tissue, would be isolated and then converted into these liver cells. They would then be somehow inserted into a patient while they were still actively dividing. This would both supplement the body's natural supply stem cells and may even enhance the activity of those already present.