You’ve got kidney problems. Serious problems. To the point where you need dialysis or a transplant. So you and your doctor go down to the “kidney farm” and pick out a kidney that suits you just right. Sounds crazy, right?
It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds! The idea of artificially reproducing organs has been a key point of interest for the medical community for some time. Doctors and patients are hoping to find a cheap and readily available alternative to a complicated organ donation procedure. There are never enough donors to meet demand. Even if there were enough to satisfy the need for donated kidneys, there would still be a dire need of organs in research facilities hoping to further our understanding of their function.
Lab-grown kidneys of any size sound like a strong step towards solving a lot of problems in the medical world. Is there any reason we shouldn’t be excited?
Growing a full-sized and fully functional kidney is still only a concept, but researchers have managed to create significant quantities of miniature kidneys that faithfully replicate the function of a natural organ. Their size and the amount of blood that they can filter per hour makes them unsuitable for transplant, but they can be used as an easy answer to the need for organs to study in a research capacity.
How It’s Done
Scientists make these miniature kidneys by taking cells and returning them to one of the earliest forms of cell a human possesses, known as the pluripotent cell. In this stage, which occurs naturally while the body is still in an embryonic state, the cells have the potential to become any kind of cell the body requires. From this stage, they are exposed to a chemical mixture to stimulate growth, then preserved in a second compound that protects the cell structure as it develops into the full shape of a mini-kidney.
What Does This All Mean?
Most of the implications for this accomplishment are in the field of research, as the organs grown are unsuitable for the demands of the human body. That said, the research field has continual need for organs on which to run trials such as drug tests and cancer screening assessments. Because these miniature kidneys function the same way as a natural human kidney, they can be tested the same way. This yields information even more precise than the animal testing still used for many human procedures or products.
Perhaps the most important advance, though, is the proof of concept that offers the possibility of recreating functional organs in laboratory conditions. Both doctors and patients need organs of all kinds. This achievement will pave the way for further research into the field of synthetic organ replacements.
What’s the Catch?
The cells from which these organs are grown have lived a considerable portion of their life already. An organ grown from them might age and die far faster than expected. This may also affect the way researchers will be able to perform experiments that need to happen during the different ages of an organ.
Scientists have indeed been growing miniature kidneys in labs. That’s enough of a good thing that the world hopes to see them continue to do so with other organs as well.