Laboratory-engineered liver tissue could be extremely useful, helping doctors to screen new drugs, and it could even one day be used for transplants. Unfortunately, it's also very difficult to replicate the organ's complex structure and functions outside of the human body. Now, researchers from China's Northwest A&F University have managed to construct artificial tissue that's proving effective at mimicking the real thing.

The liver is an extremely important organ, but it's also fairly prone to developing severe issues. Things like viral infections, bad reactions to drugs and alcoholism can stop the organ functioning properly, causing swelling, pain, nausea and more. If the issues are significant enough to cause the liver to fail, then the patient will need a replacement organ to survive.

With that in mind, it's not difficult to see why the development of artificial liver tissue is so important. Such a breakthrough would not only allow doctors to test drugs without the risk of damaging precious tissue, but could even one day remove reliance on donor organs.

Moving a step closer to that goal, the researchers used human cells taken from a human liver and aorta to construct a microfluidics-based tissue that's very similar to the liver's lobules – very small structures resembling wheels with spokes.

In testing, the engineered tissue was found to have a metabolic rate closer to a real liver than any previous lab-grown effort. The artificial liver tissue also reacted the same way to various combinations of drugs as the organ its designed to mimic.

Clinical applications for the artificial tissue are a long way off, but the team believes that its work is a promising first step in the development of functional liver tissue for actual medical use.

The findings of the study are published in the journal Analytical Chemistry.