Ancient skin disease leprosy can help rejuvenate, regenerate liver - study

Leprosy is one of the most infamous diseases in history and is associated with severe stigma. However, the bacteria that causes it may help rejuvenate, regenerate and grow a healthy liver.

 Hand showing leprosy (Illustrative). (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Hand showing leprosy (Illustrative).
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The ancient skin disease leprosy may have a secret benefit for humanity, as a new study shows the bacteria that causes it just might be able to regenerate and grow one of the human body's most vital organs: The liver.

The findings of this study were published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Cell Reports Medicine.

The liver is one of the most vital organs in the human body and its own regenerative properties are already well-known to scientists. However, aging and damaged livers may be harder to regenerate, so finding ways of helping the liver repair itself is a subject of great scientific interest.

What is leprosy and does it still exist?

Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is one of the most infamous diseases in history, having plagued humanity for thousands of years.

The skin disease commonly known as leprosy has been documented throughout time and is mentioned multiple times in the Bible and other contemporary sources. 

An illustrative image of a human liver. (credit: PIXABAY)An illustrative image of a human liver. (credit: PIXABAY)

More infamous than its symptoms, however, is the social stigma that has been associated with the disease for as long as it has existed

In ancient times and in the early-modern era - and even well into the 19th and 20th centuries - people suffering from leprosy would be segregated away from the rest of society and ostracized due to the disease. They were often referred to as Lepers, a term that many today consider derogatory, and were forcibly hospitalized and cut off from the general public due to fears of how contagious it was.

Many also feared that leprosy was genetic or sexually transmissible, and in some places, people suffering from leprosy were segregated by sex in order to keep them from having children.

Despite all this stigma, leprosy is not hereditary, nor can a person sick with leprosy give birth to a child with leprosy. It is not sexually transmissible, but it instead spreads through the respiratory system thanks to the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae or Mycobacterium lepromatosis. Further, it's not very transmissible, and 95% of people exposed to the bacteria don't even get leprosy in the end anyway.

In fact, further research has shown that leprosy can effectively be treated.

How can leprosy help heal the liver?

It is this further research that led scientists to the recent discovery that the bacteria could help regenerate the human liver and increase its health span, which is the length of time living free of disease.

To study this, the researchers examined 57 armadillos, as the small armored animals are a natural host for the leprosy bacteria.

These armadillos did end up developing enlarged livers, but they were healthy and unharmed with no signs of scarring or tumor growth. Not only that, but they also still had all the necessary vital components that healthy leprosy-free livers had, and the main kind of liver cells seemed to be rejuvenated, with the gene expression patterns - which determines how cells are built - being similar to younger humans and animals. That means that genes related to aging were likely suppressed and the cells were made to seem younger.

In other words, leprosy bacteria may reprogram liver cells to suppress aging and promote regeneration and healthy growth.

But what does this mean for humans?

The significance of this discovery is not to be dismissed, as according to scientists, this information could hold extremely positive and significant ramifications for humans, especially when it comes to treating liver diseases. 

Currently, liver diseases kill millions of people every year and liver transplants can be risky, as all transplants are. But a solution that can boost the liver's own regenerative abilities could save many lives. However, further research is needed to verify if leprosy can really help humans after all.