Ancient disease has potential to regenerate livers

Leprosy is one of the world’s oldest and most persistent diseases but the bacteria that cause it may also have the surprising ability to grow and regenerate a vital organ.

Scientists have discovered that parasites associated with leprosy can reprogramme cells to increase the size of a liver in adult animals without causing damage, scarring or tumors.

The findings suggest the possibility of adapting this natural process to renew ageing livers and increase healthspan — the length of time living disease-free — in humans.

Experts say it could also help regrow damaged livers, thereby reducing the need for transplantation, which is currently the only curative option for people with end-stage scarred livers.

Previous studies promoted the regrowth of mouse livers by generating stem cells and progenitor cells — the step after a stem cell that can become any type of cell for a specific organ — via an invasive technique that often resulted in scarring and tumour growth.

To overcome these harmful side-effects, Edinburgh researchers built on their previous discovery of the partial cellular reprogramming ability of the leprosy-causing bacteria, Mycobacterium leprae.

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