In vitro functional models for human liver diseases and drug screening: beyond animal testing
Liver is one of the most important and complex organs in the human body, being characterized by a sophisticated microarchitecture and responsible for key physiological functions. Despite its remarkable ability to regenerate, acute liver failure and chronic liver diseases are major causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide. Therefore, understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying such liver disorders is critical for the successful development of novel therapeutics. In this frame, preclinical animal models have been portrayed as the most commonly used tool to address such issues. However, due to significant species differences in liver architecture, regenerative capacity, disease progression, inflammatory markers, metabolism rates, and drug response, animal models cannot fully recapitulate the complexity of human liver metabolism. As a result, translational research to model human liver diseases and drug screening platforms may yield limited results, leading to failure scenarios. To overcome this impasse, over the last decade, 3D human liver in vitro models have been proposed as an alternative to pre-clinical animal models. These systems have been successfully employed for the investigation of the etiology and dynamics of liver diseases, for drug screening, and – more recently – to design patient-tailored therapies, resulting in potentially higher efficacy and reduced costs compared to other methods. Here, we review the most recent advances in this rapidly evolving field with particular attention to organoid cultures, liver-on-a-chip platforms, and engineered scaffold-based approaches.