Researchers in Australia have successfully grown a human kidney from stem cells.
The breakthrough marks a major advance in treating kidney disease and more avenues in bioengineering human organs. Researchers published their findings in the journal Nature Cell Biology, following their success in making human skin cells form a functioning "mini-kidney" with a width of only a few millimeters.
“During self-organization, different types of cells arrange themselves with respect to each other to create the complex structures that exist within an organ, in this case, the kidney,” Professor Melissa Little of University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), who led the study, said in a statement. “The fact that such stem cell populations can undergo self-organization in the laboratory bodes well for the future of tissue bioengineering to replace damaged and diseased organs and tissues.”
While it may be a while until the process can be used in human trials, Little says it could be a major development in treating chronic kidney disease.
“One in three Australians is at risk of developing chronic kidney disease, and the only therapies currently available are kidney transplant and dialysis,” Little said. “Only one in four patients will receive a donated organ, and dialysis is an ongoing and restrictive treatment regime.”
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The engineered kidney is a first for science.
"This is the first time anybody has managed to direct stem cells into the functional units of a kidney," Professor Brandon Wainwright, from the University of Queensland, told The Telegraph. "It is an amazing process – it is like a Lego building that puts itself together."
Scientists were able to make the kidney by identifying genes that remained active and inactive during kidney development. They were then able to alter the genes into embryonic cells that allowed them to “self-organize” into the human organ.
"The [researchers] spent years looking at what happens if you turn this gene off and this one on," Wainwright said. "You can eventually coax these stem cells through a journey – they [the cells] go through various stages and then think about being a kidney cell and eventually pop together to form a little piece of kidney."
Little predicts the stem cell kidneys could one day be used to make human kidney transplants, or a “cluster of mini kidneys” used to boost renal function in patients.