How Is The Liver Like a Starfish and a Lizard?

Its remarkable powers include the ability to regenerate. The “Super Liver” makes living liver donation possible.

The liver is an organ we rarely think about, yet it performs more than 500 functions. Some of those functions include filtering toxins, creating proteins, boosting the immune system, and regulating the body’s temperature, to name a few. Weighing in at roughly 1 percent of a person’s body weight, the liver is an extremely high-functioning, adaptable organ.

But even more amazing is its ability to regenerate. When a portion of the liver is removed, the liver’s cells divide and regrow the lost tissue within days, growing to almost 100 percent of its original size within six to eight weeks.

That’s great news for those in need of a liver transplant; the liver’s ability to regenerate means living liver donation is also an option.

“Every year, thousands of Americans die while waiting for a liver transplant due to the scarcity of donor organs,” says Dr. Adam Griesemer, a transplant surgeon at the NewYork-Presbyterian Center for Liver Disease and Transplantation and a principal investigator at the Columbia Center for Translational Immunology. “If more people were aware of living donation for liver transplant, we could save hundreds of lives per year.”

Portrait of Dr. Adam Griesemer

Dr. Adam Griesemer

According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, only a few hundred living donor liver transplants are done annually in the United States.

People who donate a portion of their liver experience regrowth within a week; the difference is visible by a CT scan or an MRI. “We don’t know exactly what triggers it to regrow, and we don’t know what triggers it to stop growing. But it does stop when it gets to nearly 100 percent of where it was before,” says Dr. Griesemer.

Approximately 15,000 people in the U.S. are currently waiting for a liver transplant, and that number rises each year, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

NewYork-Presbyterian is aiming to reduce that number by offering a minimally invasive laparoscopic procedure that significantly reduces recovery time for living liver donors.

With this procedure, instead of one large incision, several small incisions are made, with the main incision in the lower abdomen. This leads to “less pain because of where the incisions are made, a faster recovery, and less inflammation in the abdominal wall,” explains Dr. Griesemer. “The donors go home from the hospital faster, their recovery is shorter, and they return to work faster.”

Learn more about becoming a living organ donor.