Researchers in Cambridge have created a new approach for creating and transplanting artificial bile ducts with the aim of treating liver disease in children and reducing the need for transplants.

The research, published in the journal Nature Medicine, shows how the researchers grew 3D cell structures and transplanted them into mice[1]. These structures then developed into functional bile ducts.

The bile ducts are long, tubular structures that carry bile secreted by the liver which is critical for helping us to digest our food. When these ducts do not function properly, such as in childhood diseases like biliary atresia, it can lead to a damaging buildup of bile in the liver.

Growing new bile ducts

The study results suggest that it is realistic to create and transplant artificial human bile ducts using a combination of cell transplantation and tissue engineering techniques. This is positive news indeed, as currently the only option for bile duct diseases is a liver transplant. These results give hope for better solutions in the near future. 

The research team extracted healthy cholangiocytes – the cells present in bile ducts – and grew them into working 3D structures known as biliary organoids. The researchers transplanted these structures into mice and found that the organoids assembled themselves into intricate tubular structures similar to bile ducts.

Artificial tissue scaffolds

Next, the researchers investigated if they could grow biliary organoids on biodegradable collagen scaffolds. The plan was that these scaffolds might be formed into tubes and used to repair or replace damaged bile ducts in a patient.

Amazingly, within four weeks the cells had grown and completely covered the scaffolds forming perfect artificial tubes with all the features of regular, working bile ducts. They then used these artificial constructs to successfully replace damaged bile ducts in mice.

The researchers believe that their research could revolutionize the treatment of bile duct disorders. Currently, liver transplants are the only option, and with the limited number of healthy organs available, this is far from ideal.

In the future, it should be possible to create large amounts of bioengineered tissue that could be used to replace damaged and diseased bile ducts providing a solution that does not rely on donor organs.


This study and its superb results make us hopeful that bile duct diseases, such as biliary atresia and other related conditions, will have in the near future a practical solution that does not depend on organ transplants and the problems associated with them.

Also importantly, tissue engineering is also part of the toolkit researchers will need to combat age-related diseases and the damage aging does to the body. Developing bioengineered tissues such as this opens the door for us to replace whole organs, blood vessels and other body parts.

The field of tissue engineering is making excellent progress and these tools and techniques are as relevant to age-related diseases as they are to other diseases.

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[1] Vallier, L., Sampaziotis, F., Justin, A. W., Tysoe, O. C., Sawiak, S., Cardoso-de-Brito, M., … & Bertero, A. (2017). Reconstruction of the murine extrahepatic biliary tree using primary human extrahepatic cholangiocyte organoids.

About the author

Steve Hill

As a scientific writer and a devoted advocate of healthy longevity and the technologies to promote them, Steve has provided the community with hundreds of educational articles, interviews, and podcasts, helping the general public to better understand aging and the means to modify its dynamics. His materials can be found at H+ Magazine, Longevity reporter, Psychology Today and Singularity Weblog. He is a co-author of the book “Aging Prevention for All” – a guide for the general public exploring evidence-based means to extend healthy life (in press).
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