A team of researchers from Research!America members Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital recently announced a major step forward in regenerative medicine: a working kidney has been grown in the laboratory. These findings and the hope they bring to thousands of Americans waiting for a kidney transplant would not have been possible without a significant investment in research by the National Institutes of Health, who funded this project. This research also would not have succeeded without the engineering and technology advances that created the specialized equipment that allowed for an entire organ to be grown in an incubator, pointing to a need to continue investing in these areas of research as we reach beyond the limits of our current technologies in biomedical research.
By manipulating kidneys from rats, scientists were able to re-grow functional kidneys from the unviable “shell” of a donor kidney, effectively bioengineering a new organ using spare parts. In short, cadaveric donor kidneys were stripped of their cells leaving only a scaffold of natural proteins, like collagen, behind. This biological framework was then “seeded” with healthy, live cells and placed in a specialized incubator called a bioreactor. From there, nature took over and the cells grew and divided, replacing blood vessels and other specialized structures inside of the kidney and yielding a functional organ within days. The kidney not only produced rudimentary urine when connected to lab equipment that mimics blood flow, it also appeared to function within a live rat, creating urine.
The same cell removal technique was applied to pig and human kidneys to test whether this procedure could be applied on a larger scale. The findings are promising. By infusing these larger kidneys with the same formulation to wash away dead cells, the scientists were able to prepare a similar scaffold that could be use to grow a new kidney for implantation in a human recipient. That step, however, is a ways off and will require further testing and optimization of the process.
Now, more than ever, we need to advocate for funding for this kind of research. Contact your Senators and Representative and tell them how important funding for biomedical research is to you. As a nation, we must invest in research today to achieve the medical breakthroughs of tomorrow.