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Artificial Liver

Dateline: 04/08/99

The Extracorporeal Liver Assist Device, or ELAD, is the first artificial liver to use cells from humans rather than from pigs. The device is used to sustain patients awaiting a liver transplant or whose own liver is not functioning and needs to recover.

The ELAD uses a chamber system in which each of the two chambers is filled with cartridges that contain liver cells. Similar to a dialysis machine, when the device is connected via blood vessels, the blood is filtered, remixed, and returned to the body.

Devices that used pig cells caused several concerns. Patients were exposed to animal cells which could harbor potentially dangerous infectious agents. Scientists hope that with the use of human cells, the potential for adverse reactions will be minimized.

The ELAD also has a longer use period. The pig cell device could only be used for six to ten hours; the new device could potentially be used continuously by swapping cartridges. Clinical trials of the ELAD are set to begin at the University of Chicago hospitals. The trials will attempt to determine both the safety and effectiveness of the device in acute situations.

The trials will focus on using the ELAD to assist people with fulminant hepatic failure (FHF), a liver disease. FHF occurs in otherwise healthy people and can possibly be precipitated by exposure to toxins and certain drugs. Its exact cause remains unknown.

The device will be used to protect the patient's other vital organs during liver failure and to provide adequate time for the patient's liver to recover from the effects of the disease.

Scientists are optimistic that by providing this additional time for a patient's liver to recover, the number of people needing transplants may decrease, particularly for those with limited damage to the liver. Should the patient's liver not recover, the device will be used to allow additional time for a liver transplant. It is estimated that some 12.5 thousand people currently need a liver transplant. Less than 5,000 livers are donated in the average year, thus the need for such a device.

What do you think? What is the potential for artificial organs? Will the technology used to produce them improve significantly over time? Come over to the Biology Forum and share your thoughts, opinions, and feelings.

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