Researchers have discovered that a class of drugs being developed to treat cancer can also help prompt liver regeneration after severe injury, raising hopes of a new treatment that might help some patients avoid a liver transplant.

A study in mice led by scientists at the University of Edinburgh and the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow found that liver injury triggers a process called senescence that is usually linked with aging or chronic disease.

The research revealed that treatment with a class of drugs called TGF-beta inhibitors blocked the spread of senescence, which helped the liver to regenerate after injury and improved survival.

“Our research has identified a potential treatment for acute liver failure, which may prevent the need for transplant,” said Dr Tom Bird, Wellcome Trust Fellow, Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine, commenting on the findings.

“This could make a huge difference for patients with ALF and could also help free up donor livers for people with other forms of disease, who might otherwise die whilst waiting for a suitable organ.”

Further tests will be needed before the finding can be further evaluated in clinical trials, but the discovery “brings fresh hope for the thousands of people affected by liver failure each year,” the researchers note.

In cases where the damage to the liver is so severe that the organ is unable to regenerate a liver transplant is the only remaining option.

Around 300 adults and children in the UK are waiting for a liver transplant at any one time, highlighting the urgent need for alternative treatments.