Researchers at the University of Manchester have used embryonic stem cells to produce kidney tissue that can filter the blood to produce urine, which opens the door to personalized kidney transplants.

Scientists at the University of Manchester have generated human kidney tissue from embryonic stem cells for the first time. The research, published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, outlines how kidney glomeruli, tiny structures in the kidney that filter the blood, were generated from stem cells and transplanted into mice, where they filtered the blood and produced a urine-like substance. With time, this technology could be used to produce full organs to provide better kidney transplants for which you don’t need to wait in line.

The kidneys are made up of structures called nephrons, which contain up to 1 million glomeruli that filter the blood to produce a filtrate. Chemicals and water are added to or removed from this fluid depending on the body’s needs, which leads to the production of urine. When the kidneys go wrong, they can no longer perform important functions like cleaning the blood and releasing hormones that control blood pressure, meaning patients suffer from symptoms like nausea, fatigue and weakness, and chest pain.

In a massive step forward, embryonic stem cells were combined with growth factors to help them develop into kidney cells. This allowed the production of glomeruli, which when combined with a gel-like substance that acts like connective tissue, formed a ‘mini-kidney’. These structures were transplanted into mice where, after three months, they formed nephrons and were being supplied with blood by capillaries that had developed.

However, study lead Sue Kimber explained that although the work “constitutes a proof-of-principle,” there is “much work yet to be done.” This includes incorporating an artery into the system to boost its level of function, finding an exit route for the urine that is produced and identifying a way to deliver the technology into diseased kidneys.

The kidney is a complex organ but scientists have taken the first steps to generating a stem cell-derived copy.

Adrian Woolf, Consultant in Paediatric Nephrology at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, said: “Worldwide, two million people are being treated with dialysis or transplantation for kidney failure, and sadly another two million die each year, unable to access these treatments.” 

This highlights the need for new technology to come in and help these patients. Balmes Transplantation is one company doing its best to reduce the risk of transplants by developing combination therapies for kidney ischemia-reperfusion injury. The technology could also be used to improve the treatment of other kidney diseases like distal renal tubular acidosis, a condition characterized by an abnormal blood pH that can affect the function of several organs. The disease has been targeted by the French biotech, Advicenne, which maintained patient blood bicarbonate levels within the normal range during a Phase III study.

This technology is at a very early stage so we remain realistic. However, if these researchers can channel the power of regenerative medicine and use stem cells to repair damaged kidneys, they could offer the best possible solution to organ failure: a healthy new kidney without the need to find a donor.


Images – Giovanni Cancemi / shutterstock.com; Alexander_P / shutterstock.com

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