Scientists grow a human kidney

For the first time Australian researchers have managed to grow a miniature kidney from human stem cells, an advance which could save lives and improve drug testing safety.

Professor Melissa Little from the University of Queensland and her team were able to produce a human kidney similar to that of a five-week old embryo. Previous attempts have only resulted in one type of kidney cell being produced. Human kidneys, however, are made up of different types of tissue. Each of the different tissue types in a kidney is made from a different type of cell.

The aim of the experiment was initially to coax the stem cells to produce just one type of kidney cell, however, they discovered they were able to produce two different cell types, both of which are required to assemble a human adult kidney. The kidney was produced by bathing the stem cells in particular concentrations of ‘growth factors’ at specific times, to guide the cells to grow in a way which mimics normal development in an embryo.

The cells weren’t just floating around in a petri-dish, either – the two different cell types were able to ‘self-organise’ into the complex structures that exist within the kidney, much as they would during normal growth.

“We went in thinking we would be able to make a single stem cell type, but we looked own the microscope and realised we were getting both types,” says Professor Little. “What we’ve made is a much more complex set of cells. That’s a huge advance in terms of what has been possible to date.

The miniature kidney is exciting for two reasons. The first is that it leads the way for more complex, fully formed adult kidneys to be produced. Only one-in-four adults who need a kidney transplant get one – the rest have to make do with dialysis, an ongoing and restrictive treatment regime. If we could grow fully functioning kidneys from a person’s own stem cells, then we could make enough to ensure anyone could have a transplant. We could also eliminate the problem of organ rejection, as the new organs being grown would be an exact genetic match for the patient.

The second reason lab-grown kidneys are such an important breakthrough is their application in testing medications. Currently the only way to test if a drug will be safe for human consumption is to perform a human trial, where people agree to take the new drug and allow scientists to monitor them for any problems. It takes a long time to get a drug approved for human trial. If scientists could simply test the drug on organs grown in a lab, it could speed up this process exponentially, and it might even, one day, be able to eradicate the need for animal testing.

“One-in-three Australians is at risk of developing chronic kidney disease and the only therapies currently available are kidney transplant and dialysis … We need to improve outcomes for patients with this debilitating condition,” says Professor Little.

Find out more from the ABC News website


Opinion: The future is here

This breakthrough is up there with Dolly the sheep, the first mammal we ever managed to clone. That was back in 1996, but with all the laws restricting research on human cloning scientists have found it difficult to make much progress in this area. But why bother with cloning when we can simply grow new human organs? In fact, I would say that creating a kidney from stem cells is a more important breakthrough than Dolly ever was – we don’t need to find new and expensive ways of making more sheep. They’re pretty good of taking care of reproduction themselves. What we do need is more access to human organs, and fast.

In 2012 only 354 organ donors were able to successfully donate organs and save lives. This incredibly small number was celebrated as the highest number of organ donors and transplant recipients in one year since national records began. In Australia only one-in-four people who need a new kidney will get one.

To me this seems like some of the most important research we have ever undertaken. Even if, as the ABC suggested, we are still decades away from using this technology to transplant organs, it’s important to remember that a decade is not such a long time. We could be growing new kidneys for transplant in the very foreseeable future, which brings that weird science-fiction idea of simply replacing our worn-out parts so much closer than many of us expected.

What do you think? Is this scientific breakthrough important to you? Should this news have featured on front pages instead of journalists reporting another cricket match? Or does a future where we can grow new organs for transplant seem simply too far-fetched? 

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