Liver failure, notwithstanding advances in medical management, remains a cause of considerable morbidity and mortality in the developed world. Although bioartificial liver (BAL) support systems offer the potential of significant therapeutic benefit for such patients, many issues relating to their use are still to be resolved. In this review, these issues are examined in terms of the functions required, the cells of choice in such a system, and the most appropriate environment to optimize the function of such cells. The major functions identified to date for a BAL are ammonia detoxification and biotransformation of toxic compounds, although this somewhat belies the complexity of the functions required. Two practical choices for cell type within such a system are xenogenic hepatocytes and immortalized human hepatocyte lines. Both these choices have drawbacks, such as the transmission of zoonoses and malignant infiltration, respectively. Finally, improvements in culture conditions, such as supplemented media, biodegradable scaffolds, and coculture, offer the possibility of prolonging the differentiated function of hepatocytes in a BAL.