Take a look inside the artificial kidney

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published February 16, 2016

Key Takeaways

Researchers are making progress on a first-of-its-kind implantable artificial kidney that would eventually free kidney patients from dialysis.

“We think that we can get a device down small enough that it can get enough clearance—enough removal of waste products, enough removal of salt and water—to keep a patient off dialysis, but still be small enough … to fit inside a patient’s body cavity,” said nephrologist William Fissell, IV, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), in Nashville, TN. 

Dr. Fissell’s team at VUMC is sharing an NIH grant to collaboratively develop the artificial kidney with researchers at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), in San Francisco, CA, led by principal investigator Shuvo Roy, PhD.

The artificial kidney is a bio-hybrid device that combines silicon nanopore membranes with living renal tubule cells cultured from human kidney samples. The silicon membranes perform not only as filters, but are also the scaffold on which the living kidney cells reside, Dr. Fissell said.

An example of the microchip filter being used inside Fissell's artificial kidney. (Photo: Vanderbilt University)The current prototype uses two silicon nanopore filters. “The real-world device that we’ll scale up for actual clinical use will probably hold up to 15 or 16 plates in a stack,” Dr. Fissell said.

The bio-hybrid artificial kidney is meant to replicate the dual function of the human kidney. “We can leverage Mother Nature’s 60 million years of research and development and use those kidney cells, that fortunately for us grow promiscuously in the lab dish, and grow them into a bioreactor of living cells that will be the only ‘Santa Claus’ membrane in the world—the only membrane that knows which solutes have been naughty and which solutes have been nice,” Dr. Fissell said.

That is, the device will be able to reabsorb the nutrients the body needs and discard the wastes that the body desperately wants to get rid of, he explained.

Because the living kidney cells are positioned downstream from the device’s intake filter—out of reach of the body’s immune response—organ rejection won’t be an issue.

Also, the implant requires no external power source because it’s designed to run on the body’s normal blood pressure.

Pilot studies could begin in human subjects as soon as 2017 or 2018, the researchers predicted.

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