Researchers in Melbourne and Brisbane have successfully grown a human ‘mini-kidney’ from stem cells.
Published in the journal Nature, the results have significant implications for medical research, as the mini-organ mimics normal kidney development.
It means laboratory-grown kidneys can be used for drug testing and potentially the bioengineering of replacement kidneys for patients with renal failure as they can be grown from any person using cells such as skin or blood.
It also opens the door for cell therapy and other new treatments for kidney disease – not to mention giving researchers a chance to grow ‘kidney models’ to learn more about how the human kidney forms normally.
“For us it’s a pretty exciting advance,” said stem cell biologist Melissa Little, of the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute.
“This organ is making its own blood vessels, it’s making it’s own tubules for filtering and cleaning the blood, so it’s really a very complex structure,” she said of the kidney, which was observed three weeks after creation.
An author on the paper, Professor Little said it was equally important to learn how healthy and diseased kidneys functioned but that ethical reasons often limited research on human kidneys. Instead mice were used. However, she said while the mouse kidney was similar to humans, it was structurally different.
“Now for the first time we have a chance to ask what is different between a human and a mouse kidney because we don’t study human kidneys for obvious reasons,” she said. “From a research point of view it is going to tell us a great deal more than we knew before.”
About half the children with kidney disease had inherited the condition via a genetic mutation. Being able to grow a kidney using a patient’s stem cells meant a diseased kidney could be grown to test a patient’s response to treatment before drugs were administered.
The breakthrough follows Professor Little’s team’s first creation of a mini-kidney in 2013, which was able to form two cell-types.
This kidney, grown in collaboration with colleagues from Melbourne University and the University of Queensland, is different. No longer than a centimetre, it features up to 12 types of cell normally found in the human body making it equivalent to a foetal kidney. An adult kidney has around 20 cell types and is the size of a large softball.
It was also created using stem cells made from adult skin, rather than embryonic stem cells which were used in the 2013 kidney.