Scientists in Melbourne are using a world-first human cell regeneration technique to create organs in a dish in an effort to grow liver tissue for transplants.
While the liver can naturally repair itself, too much scarring, tissue death and inflammation can lead to liver failure.
Currently more than 7000 Australians die each year of chronic liver disease, a number which is expected to rise as rates of viral hepatitis, obesity, type 2 diabetes and alcohol abuse increase.
The experimental organs being developed at the O'Brien Institute are tiny, just a few millimetres long, and will be used to test drugs and eventually treat disease.
Currently the team are creating the tiny livers with a biodegradable scaffold, a human-derived liver gel and three types of human cells.
Dr Kiryu Yap, who leads the team along with Dr Geraldine Mitchell, says the first step is to create a small amount of tissue which can be used in patients with liver disease, replacing just a few of the organ's functions.
"If we could create liver tissue in the lab, it would be a game-changer," Dr Yap told News Corp Australia.
While other scientists are creating organoids in labs, the work done by these scientists is using a unique combination of cells which will allow organ-like structures to grow.
The cells are gathered from cancer patients, with their consent. Dr Yap attends surgeries at St Vincent's Hospital to remove cancer in the liver and harvest small amounts of healthy tissue.
Dr Mitchell said initial experiments of the cells showed they could form into blood vessels in the organoids to connect to the host's blood supply, ensuring their survival.
The organoid technology is hoped to be the foundation of new liver transplants which will be able to treat a wide variety of chronic liver disease.
However while the work continues, Dr Yap says they're not quite at the stage where they can grow an entire liver from scratch.
"While recreating an entire liver is an ambitious long-term goal, it is not currently feasible."