Clinical trial for stem-cell therapy to reverse liver cirrhosis

SINGAPORE - The use of stem cells to reverse liver cirrhosis - or the hardening of the liver - is being explored in a clinical trial.

Conducted by a multi-centre team led by the National University Hospital (NUH), doctors aim to determine if stem cell therapy can improve liver function.

Previously, liver cirrhosis, caused by various diseases such as chronic hepatitis B and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, was thought to be irreversible.

A liver transplant provides a definitive cure to end-stage cirrhosis.

However, in Singapore, less than 5 per cent of end-stage liver cirrhosis patients receive a liver transplant.

The number of people on the waiting list for a liver transplant has been increasing over the years, according to statistics from the Ministry of Health.

In 2007, there were nine on the waiting list, compared with 57 last year. There are around 50 waiting for a liver transplant this year.

Also, many patients do not fulfil the eligibility criteria to receive a liver transplant due to other health complications or being above the age limit of 70 years.

The $2.6 million study, which was launched on Tuesday (July 11), is funded by the National Medical Research Council and 46 patients will be recruited for it. It will run for four years and patients will not need to bear the costs of the stem cell treatment.

Stem cells will be taken from a patient's own bone marrow and will be isolated and injected directly into the patient's liver to initiate the repair.

Similar therapy treatments have been conducted overseas in countries such as Egypt and India, although they have not been fully evaluated for efficacy.

Associate Professor Dan Yock Young, a senior consultant in the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at NUH, said: "We are conducting the study in a systematic and scientific manner to get definitive evidence of the effects of the treatment."

He also notes that the stem cell therapy is not a substitute for a liver transplant. "This treatment is not intended to pull patients off the waiting list, but provide an option for those who are not eligible for a transplant."