According to Greek mythology, the titan Prometheus had his liver eaten out every night by an eagle as a punishment for giving fire to humans. It grew back overnight, just in time to be eaten again.
It turns out that our livers may not be all that different from Prometheus' mythical organ. They can often grow back to normal size after a substantial portion has been removed. While this ability to regenerate a liver was obviously terrible for Prometheus, it is being used to help children with liver disease live normal lives.
Most children who experience acute hepatic failure –sudden and often unexpected liver failure- need a liver transplant in order to survive. Doctors must suppress their immune systems to prevent rejection of the new liver. Immunosuppression leads to a host of other serious problems and can making living a normal life extremely difficult for the patient.
However, liver specialists are now working on a new approach, where the patient receives a new liver and is immunosuppressed, but the part of the old liver is not removed. The remaining part of the original liver is allowed to regenerate while the new liver fills its role. Once the original liver is again healthy enough, the patient can be taken off immunosuppressive drugs. The body's immune system slowly destroys the transplanted liver, and the patient's original liver takes over.
The downside is that the procedure is not for everyone. It is being used in children because their livers seem to be more likely to regenerate than adult livers. Also, the transplant operation that uses this technique is longer and riskier, and many children with acute hepatic failure quickly become too sick to have it.
Nevertheless, it still seems to have tremendous possible benefits. It will be interesting to see how the Promethean ability of the liver to grow back can be exploited to help patients with hepatic problems in the future.
- blog authored by John Froberg