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THE BIO-ARTIFICIAL LIVER
After 25 years of intensive research, there is still no effective treatment for fulminant hepatitis. Hepatitis causes more than one million deaths a year, according to statistics gathered by the World Health Organization. And, many of those who survive the hepatitis develop cirrhosis and chronic liver failure. The only treatment available for liver failure is liver transplant surgery; but donor organs are difficult to obtain, and the procedure, which is expensive and complex, is frequently unsuccessful.
A workable artificial liver is desperately needed. Unlike the heart and the kidneys, the liver is able to regenerate; many people who have suffered liver damage would survive if they could be supported by an artificial liver until their own livers heal. The device could also save the lives of hepatitis victims, and offer a means of survival for the millions of people whose livers are in failure. And, an artificial liver could support patients awaiting transplant surgery, or waiting for a new donor organ after a transplant has failed.
For years, it seemed that developing an artificial liver would be impossible. The liver is an extremely complex organ. It performs a variety of functions, and many of them are still poorly understood. One science journalist speculated that the equipment needed to simulate the functions of a single human liver would occupy a large office building.
A breakthrough occurred when Dr. Kenneth Matsumura took a completely different approach to developing an artificial liver. Instead of trying to design mountains of equipment to perform each of the liver's functions, he designed a device that uses liver cells obtained from animals. Because the device contains both biological and manufactured components, it is called a "bio-artificial liver." A patient's blood circulates through this bio-artificial liver, where a unique synthetic membrane separates it from the animal cells. The membrane prevents immunologic rejection of the cells, but allows the cells to detoxify the blood in the same way as a natural liver. Disposable units can be used for a series of brief treatments, as with kidney dialysis. Already, the bio-artificial liver has saved the life of a man who was dying of liver failure because cancer had blocked his bile duct.
The bio-artificial liver typifies the dream of Alin Foundation's founders -- innovative technology bringing hope where none existed before.
The bio-artificial liver was recognized as an Invention of the Year in 2001 by TIME Magazine.
Special credit: Dr. William L. Hamilton assisted Dr. Matsumura in the pioneering work of the artificial liver.