Scientists on brink of breakthrough to help thousands in need of kidney transplant: growing artificial kidney

"The problem is right now we don't have enough transplant kidneys available." Researchers are working on what could be a medical miracle for thousands waiting for kidney transplants. What if you could grow a new one?

Phillip Palmer Image
Thursday, January 28, 2021
Scientists working to grow artificial kidney for those needing transplant
It sounds like it's out of a sci-fi novel, but a team of scientists are researching a way to synthesize a kidney with sufficient function to keep a person off dialysis.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- The CDC estimates 15% of adults in the United States have Chronic Kidney Disease and nine out of 10 don't know they have it. Roughly 500,000 are on dialysis. To make matters worse, many current COVID patients are showing signs of kidney damage.

"They may be living with chronic kidney disease and eventually needing dialysis or transplantation or some other therapies. The problem is right now we don't have enough transplant kidneys available," said Dr. Kenneth Hallows, Director USC/UKRO Kidney Research Center.

Nearly 100,000 people are on the kidney transplant waiting list in the United States. And with nearly 25 million COVID cases across the country, a future surge in those numbers is possible.

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Researchers at Keck School of Medicine of USC may have the answer to the kidney shortage.

"I think that we have a system here which could be the first system that we do synthesize a new organ," said Dr. Andy McMahon, Keck School of Medicine of USC.

The goal for the team of researchers is to synthesize a kidney with sufficient function to keep a person off dialysis; a treatment that is life-saving, but difficult. Lori Hartwell was on dialysis for 13 years.

"It's very burdensome and so if you could have an artificial kidney that would allow you to live the life you were meant to live and get up and do everything you wanted it would be a huge breakthrough," said Hartwell, president of the Renal Support Network.

In terms of making a functional organ, researchers around the world generally use a special type of stem cell to develop a small kidney for research; it works for modeling the kidney, but it's not effective for making one. USC's team is trying to recreate what happens in the developing fetus when early cells interact during the initial steps of developing a kidney.

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"The ingredients for making a real kidney, the recipe book is these specific progenitor populations, and we combine them together in a recipe to synthesize the kidney," said Dr. McMahon.

Currently there's not a method in a lab to grow a kidney large enough for a person, so the plan is to grow the synthetic kidney in a pig within five years. If that happens, the USC team is confident they can develop a system to generate these structures at scale... by the thousands.

"I do think that it can provide a solution for the large number of people that you point out who need a solution," said Dr. McMahon.

"Just stay alive until the next miracle happens... that's what I always say," said Hartwell.

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