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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