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Kidneys Rebuilt in Lab May Offer Human Transplant Path

A baby giant African pouch rat looks for its reward in an opening of a lab training box. Photographer: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images
A baby giant African pouch rat looks for its reward in an opening of a lab training box. Photographer: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

Scientists have found a way to rebuild rat kidneys in the laboratory that successfully filtered blood and allowed the animals to urinate, an early research step that may one day lead to replacement organs for humans.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston stripped donor organs of kidney cells with a chemical bath, leaving a physical scaffold behind made up largely of proteins. They then repopulated the structure with cells from both newborn rats and humans, and allowed the cells to grow in an incubator.

While the resulting organs weren’t as efficient as natural ones, they kept the kidney’s physical shape allowing transplant, the study reported. The work, published in the journal Nature Medicine, outlines a process that may one day be used to rebuild kidneys for people in renal failure, said Harald Ott, the study’s senior author. As many as 10 percent of about 100,000 Americans awaiting a kidney transplant as of April 5 will die before getting a transplant, the authors wrote.

“The resulting graft can be transplanted just like a donor kidney,” Ott said in a statement. “If this technology can be scaled to human-sized grafts, patients suffering from renal failure who are currently waiting for donor kidneys or who are not transplant candidates could theoretically receive new organs derived from their own cells.”

About 1 million people have end-stage renal disease, mostly caused when their kidneys are damaged by high blood pressure and diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. While dialysis can help these patients survive, only a transplant can cure the disease.

This isn’t the only approach to artificial kidneys. In April 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Association picked a wearable artificial kidney device made by Blood Purification Technologies Inc. for its fast-track program. Research groups in Singapore and at the University of Michigan are working on other cell-based approaches.

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