For thousands of kidney patients in the U.S., the only practical hope of getting off dialysis has been waiting for a transplant. But now, a new engineering breakthrough is reigniting hopes for a second option... an implantable artificial kidney.
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"We were able to produce a functional prototype. A prototype that was able to produce urine," says UCSF researcher Shuvo Roy, Ph.D.
We first met professor Roy in his lab at UCSF roughly a decade ago, when he was working on a concept-model for the artificial kidney. Like that model, the new working prototype employs two chambers, each about the size of a deck of cards. On one side, are membrane filters for cleaning the blood, similar to dialysis. On the other, a bioreactor filled with living cells, which perform some of the other functions the kidneys would normally control in the body.
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"Our artificial kidney will allow patients to eat and drink freely. Travel without being tethered to a machine. And have better physiological outcomes because they're getting continuous treatment," explains professor Roy.
The artificial kidney prototype was tested successfully in a live animal model. And while the results are considered a turning point, the UCSF team says the technology will have to be scaled up to make human trials possible.
The goal is to keep the unit at a size where it can be implanted in the body. But at the same time, adding more filtering power along with a more powerful biological capability.
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Professor Roy says the challenges are funding and improved engineering.
But he believes the bioengineered design is now proven to be practical, with the necessary scale up.
"And is still likely to treat patients in this coming decade," he believes.
The $650,000 prize was awarded to UCSF and their partners at Vanderbilt University by the group Kidney-X. It's a public-private partnership, dedicated to accelerating the treatment of kidney disease.