Grace, hospital develop experimental liver device

December 12, 1992|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Staff Writer

W. R. Grace and Rhode Island Hospital announced yesterday that they are developing a type of artificial liver, called a liver assist, that could keep a person alive until a human donor organ is found or until the liver heals itself.

The device, which would be attached to the patient outside the body, is a hollow cartridge packed with pig liver cells. A membrane developed by W. R. Grace would then be used to screen the body's white blood cells from coming into contact with the pig cells. This should prevent the body's immune system from recognizing the device as foreign and trying to reject it.

Several times in the past year, surgeons have used pig or baboon livers, with limited success, to sustain patients until a human organ could be found. In August, a 25-year-old woman at Johns Hopkins Hospital was attached to a plastic bag next to her bedside containing a pig liver, which successfully worked to cleanse her blood of toxins. Other uses of pig or baboon livers, however, have not been successful. In all, an estimated 35,000 people die every year of chronic liver disorders.

Grace's device could work better than current methods, according to Dr. Thomas E. Muller, director of biomedical systems at W. R. Grace's research division in Lexington, Mass., because it is designed to prevent the body from rejecting it. Pig livers can only be used for a couple of days before the body begins to reject it.

Mr. Muller's division is coordinated by Grace's corporate research center, the Washington Research Center, in Columbia.

Besides helping patients with chronic liver disorders, Dr. Muller said, the device would be useful for people whose livers fail suddenly because of a drug overdose, hepatitis or accident.

In those cases, Dr. Muller said, the device could filter out toxins from the body while the liver is given time to regenerate. The patient could use the device for five or six hours a day "until the liver can come back and function again."

Without treatment, patients can become comatose and die.

Questions remain about how long the device could be used, particularly on patients who might have to wait weeks for a donated organ. Dr. Muller said the questions would be answered through human testing. The company would not estimate the cost of the liver device.

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