Researchers have designed the first artificial kidney small enough to slip comfortably inside the human body, and they say the technological breakthrough could be an enormous benefit for people grappling with kidney disease. Modern medicine can keep patients alive if their kidneys fail via external dialysis machines that filter toxins from their blood, but it’s a grueling and imperfect process.
Patients must be tethered to machines at least three times a week for three to five hours at a stretch. Even then, a dialysis machine is only about 13 percent as effective as a functional kidney, and the five-year survival rate of patients on dialysis is just 33 to 35 percent. To restore health, patients need a kidney transplant, and there just aren’t enough donor organs to go around. In August, there were 85,000 patients on the U.S. waiting list for a kidney … while only 17,000 kidney transplants took place last year. [Technology Review]
An external and far bigger (think room-sized) version of this artificial kidney technology has been tested and proven to work; then the big challenge was miniaturization. The separate components of a smaller device have now been tested in animals, and researchers say their prototype should be about the size of a coffee cup. They hope to build the mechanical organ and have it ready for clinical trials within 5 to 7 years.
Researchers say the device is an improvement over dialysis because it doesn’t just filter out toxins from the blood, it also performs some of the functions of healthy kidney cells–which is not surprising, as the mechanism actually contains human kidney cells. First the patient’s blood goes through a filter made of silicon membranes; it is forced through the filter’s nano-pores by the patient’s blood pressure, with no external pump or power source required. Then the blood will flow through a bioreactor where living kidney cells perform the metabolic and water-balancing functions of a real kidney.
In the press release announcing the prototype, lead researcher Shuvo Roy of the University of California, San Francisco said the device could have not only medical benefits, but also economic advantages.
“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.” [UCSF]
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