Bio-engineers race to culture livers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 July, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 July, 2000, 12:00am

SAR researchers are locked in a race with overseas scientists to develop advanced tissue engineering technology that could make liver transplants a thing of the past.

Innomed, a Hong Kong-based biotechnology research and development firm, has launched a joint research project with mainland and US scientists to culture liver and cartilage tissues. Skin and liver are made of tissues that can be repaired by replacing dead or damaged cells with nearby healthy cells or stem cells - undifferentiated cells that can generate different cell types.

Tissue engineering is an emerging field which combines biology and engineering to develop substitutes to restore, maintain or improve human tissue functions. The most common example is a skin graft.

Researchers are working to replicate virtually every human tissue type. Innomed executive director Thomas Cheung would not divulge details of the company's progress, but said more research findings would be completed by the end of the year. Research teams competing with Hong Kong on this technology include those from the US, Germany and Canada.

Mr Cheung said: 'The technology has been proved to be theoretically possible but it may take a long time before it can be used on patients. Bear in mind that we will need to undergo different clinical trials and receive approval by [public hospitals'] ethics committees before the technology can be used on humans.' He said the project was focused on liver and cartilage because of a large number of patients with liver disease in Hong Kong as well as an expected rise in bone diseases among the ageing population. Mr Cheung declined to say when the technology could be clinically applied.

Queen Mary Hospital hepatitis expert Dr Lau Ka-kit said the technology still had a long way to go before tissues could be cultured to cure terminal liver diseases. Hospital Authority records show 100 patients are waiting for liver transplants in the SAR.

Liver transplant laws have triggered controversy in recent years. Fung Kwok-leung, 41, died in November 1998 despite the availability of a suitable donor. He was in a coma and could not sign a consent form, as required by law at the time, which has since been amended. Another patient, Chow Yam-fun, 36, died the same month after waiting 10 hours for the Human Organ Transplant Board's approval.