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Artificial kidney may replace dialysis

February 23, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Half-a-million Americans suffer from chronic kidney failure each year, and that number keeps going up. The best available treatment is a transplant, but many have to wait years to get one if they get one at all. Now, an artificial kidney may be medicine's next big thing.

It's a routine that's getting old for David Anderson. Sitting in a chair for hours on end is not how he'd prefer to spend his days.

"It's about five hours a day of coming and going, really, three times a week," said Anderson.

Anderson suffers from kidney failure and needs dialysis to survive. It's a process that cleans out blood but takes its toll on patients.

"It's uncomfortable to sit here for such a long time," said Anderson.

The therapy only replaces about 10 percent of kidney function. After five years, just 35 percent of patients are still alive.

"It's actually really sad. I have a lot of patients. I think all nephrologists have a lot of patients that die regularly," said nephrologist Dr. Lynda Frassetto.

A kidney transplant is a better option. The problem? Last year, only 17,000 of the 85,000 patients on the waiting list received an organ.

An artificial kidney could soon be a solution. Researchers at University of California-San Francisco hope to implant the device right in the body.

Thousands of microscopic filters mimic the filtering role of a real kidney. One side filters out toxins while the other re-absorbs salt and water and emits waste. The body's own blood pressure performs the filtration without the need for a power supply.

"Because it's implanted and provides many of the same benefits of a transplant, the patient quality of life, the patient health, will be improved," said Frassetto.

The surgery will cost the same as a kidney transplant, but this device is designed to completely eliminate the $75,000 per year spent on dialysis for each patient. A room-sized model of the artificial kidney has been used for more than a decade. Now engineers are trying to fit that into a device the size of a coffee cup.

"I'd sign up now if I could," said Anderson.

Until then, he'll wait, hoping medicine will soon get him out of this chair and onto more exciting adventures.

Another benefit is patients wouldn't need to take the immune-suppressant drugs like they do with a transplant.

Researchers hope the artificial kidney will be in clinical trials in the next five years.