Artificial liver support systems can simulate some functions of a person’s liver. They can act as a bridge treatment for people with liver diseases until they recover or receive a transplant.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1.8% of the population in the United States has liver disease.

The liver is a vital organ that controls many important physiological processes. Acute liver diseases can often be life threatening and lead to the deterioration of a person’s quality of life.

This article explains what artificial liver treatment is and explores current research, who may need an artificial liver, tips for a healthy liver, and when to seek medical advice.

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Artificial liver support systems are an emerging treatment option for people with severe liver disease.

Acute liver failure (ALF) is a serious condition with high morbidity and mortality. The two most common causes of ALF are drug-induced injury and hepatitis A or E.

Acute-on-chronic liver failure (ACLF) is another condition that leads to deterioration of liver function and very high mortality.

Liver transplantation is currently the only definitive treatment approach for both ALF and ACLF. However, the low success rate of transplantation and the limited availability of donors has led researchers to develop other treatment options.

One such approach is artificial liver support systems. These can serve as a bridge to support a person with ALF or ACLF until a donor is available or their liver function improves.

Liver function

The liver is a dynamic organ that serves several essential functions. It comprises about 2% of a person’s body weight, interacts with almost all body organ systems, and plays multifunctional roles.

A few of the major functions of the liver include:

  • Bile production: This helps in the absorption of fats and some vitamins.
  • Blood plasma production: The liver does this through the production of certain proteins.
  • Cholesterol production: It also produces special proteins to help carry fats around the body.
  • Converting excess glucose (blood sugar) into glycogen: The body can store this and convert it back into glucose for energy when needed.
  • Breakdown of red blood cells into bilirubin: Bilirubin is a yellowish substance found in bile.
  • Clearing the blood of drugs and toxins: The liver helps filter out poisonous and harmful substances from the blood.
  • Regulates blood clotting: It also regulates blood clotting by producing certain plasma proteins.

Liver support system types

Similar to hemodialysis in treating kidney failure, artificial liver support systems are therapeutic devices that assist in performing liver functions in people with liver damage. The process is similar to kidney dialysis in that a person’s blood filters through a machine via an IV line.

There are two types of liver support systems, artificial and bioartificial. Artificial support systems utilize devices that can remove toxins by absorption or filtration. Bioartificial systems help with the self-regeneration of the liver along with toxin removal.

The four most common artificial support systems include:

  • molecular adsorbent recirculating system (MARS)
  • fractionated plasma separation and adsorption system (Prometheus)
  • single-pass albumin dialysis (SPAD)
  • selective plasma filtration therapy

Jan Stange and his colleagues developed MARS, the most studied artificial system, in the early 1990s.

A 2020 study reports that MARS has the highest survival rate for people with ALF and ACLF, followed by Prometheus and SPAD.

Another recent study suggests that MARS is the best treatment option to reduce in-hospital mortality of people with ALF.

However, since most of these studies involve small sample populations, the results might not be generalizable for large, diverse populations. Most of these systems are also costly.

Further research is necessary to overcome these limitations and develop safe and effective artificial support systems to treat acute liver diseases.

People with ALF or ACLF most often require artificial liver treatment before undergoing a liver transplant or to improve liver function.

Liver failure often results in cirrhosis, most often due to long-term problematic alcohol use or chronic hepatitis C. Other less common causes of cirrhosis include:

People with acute liver diseases leading to cirrhosis and people with liver cancer might also require artificial liver treatment.

A few tips that can help people maintain a healthy liver include:

  • eating a balanced diet that includes fresh fruits, vegetables, cereals, and rice
  • maintaining a moderate weight
  • exercising regularly
  • avoiding or limiting alcohol consumption
  • avoiding illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and others
  • avoiding sharing personal hygiene items such as toothbrushes, razors, and nail clippers
  • practicing safe sex
  • getting vaccinated for hepatitis A and hepatitis B
  • avoiding contact with the blood of another person

A person should speak with a doctor if they are experiencing symptoms of liver failure, such as:

People should do this as soon as possible, as early diagnosis and treatment can prevent liver failure.

Learn more about liver disease symptoms.

Artificial liver treatments are support systems for people with acute or acute-on-chronic liver failure. They may serve as a bridge to liver transplantation or allow the recovery of liver function. There are two types of liver support systems: artificial and bioartificial.

Although some studies highlight the effectiveness of artificial liver treatments in improving survival rates for people with liver failure, further research is necessary to assess their use in the wider population and improve the functionality of liver support systems.

It is important for people with symptoms of liver failure or acute liver diseases to talk with a doctor as soon as possible to avoid serious complications.