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Tech by VICE

This Tiny Artificial Kidney Is Powered by Your Body

Kidney failure is on the rise and the kidney donation system is so tangled that people who need the organ transplant aren’t receiving them even when they’re available. Rather than try to untangle the systemic mess, a team of scientists at universities...

by Gregory Thomas
Oct 12 2012, 4:00pm

Kidney failure is on the rise, partly driven by rising diabetes rates, but the kidney donation system is so tangled that people who need the organ transplant aren't receiving them even when they're available. Rather than try to untangle the systemic mess, a team of scientists at universities around the country are developing the world's first artificial kidney. They hope to be able to implant it in an animal for clinical trials by 2017.

A diagram of UCSF’s artificial kidney

Earlier this month, bioengineers at University of California, San Francisco – the team leading the advance – received a $750,000 grant to continue their research, which kicked off during the summer with a $2.25 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The idea is to alleviate the need for dialysis, which costs billions of dollars in health care each year for the hundreds of thousands of people who rely on it.

The only solution for the more than 500,000 people in the U.S. suffering chronic kidney failure each year is an organ transplant. And while the number grows, partially due to the ever-increasing diabetes epidemic, the number of ripe kidneys remains in short supply. Or, worse, kidneys are being thrown away without being transplanted because the current system isn't agile enough to match a needy person with the right kidney.

The waiting list for kidneys runs longer than 85,000 people, but only about 17,000 donated kidneys were available for transplant last year, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplant Network. There's such a high demand for kidneys that there are actually social networks where people who need the organ create profiles to garner sympathy with prospective donors.

Scientists at UCSF unveiled a plastic prototype of the phony organ in September. It's loaded with thousands of microscopic filters and powered by a "bioreactor" (officially a "BioCartridge") of renal tubule cells that imitates the function of real kidneys by balancing water and regulating metabolism. Batteries not included – the process runs blood pressure.

A team in Michigan showed the treatment can work for the sickest patients by hooking them up to an external room-sized mock-kidney model. Now, the UCSF team is tweaking the design to get the device down to the size of a coffee cup. To do that, the lead engineer at UCSF, Dr. Shuvo Roy (that’s him holding a prototype above), is fabricating tiny compartments where live kidney cells would live, which will help the human recipient's body acclimate to the device without medication.

"This device is designed to deliver most of the health benefits of a kidney transplant, while addressing the limited number of kidney donors each year," said Roy, an associate professor at UCSF, in a press release. "This could dramatically reduce the burden of renal failure for millions of people worldwide, while also reducing one of the largest costs in U.S. healthcare."

Top image via UCSF