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Scientists have figured out how to grow primitive human kidneys in a lab. Researchers hope the advance will someday lead to new ways to save thousands of people dying from kidney failure. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has the story.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: We can't live without our kidneys. They filter toxins from our blood, let us pee, and Melissa Little of the Murdoch Children's Research Institute in Australia says that's just for starters.
MELISSA LITTLE: They make sure your blood pressure is right, your bone density is right. They regulate the number of red blood cells in your blood, so they're incredibly important.
STEIN: But people's kidneys can fail for lots of reasons - poisonings, infections, other diseases. It's a huge problem.
LITTLE: The problem is that if something goes wrong with your kidneys, there are only two options, and these have been the same for more than 50 years. You either have to have a transplant or you go onto dialysis, so we really need some alternative options.
STEIN: So Little has been trying for years to grow people new kidneys in her lab using stem cells - not human embryonic stem cells, the ones that are so controversial because they come from human embryos - induced pluripotent stem cells. Scientist can make them from any cell in your body, like any skin cell.
LITTLE: Almost 10 years ago now, it was shown that you could take a cell from anybody like you or me and actually convince it to go right back to a state that's able to turn into any tissue type.
STEIN: But that's easier said than done. Little and others have been trying for years to find just the right combination of chemical signals that would coax these stem cells into making a kidney in a laboratory dish.
LITTLE: It's like a recipe, I guess. We put different concentrations and types of growth factors in a certain order into the dish, and then when it gets to a certain size, we take all the cells and make it into a ball. And the cells talk to each other. One type of cell will signal to its neighbor, and its neighbor will signal back. And that actually makes them form the appropriate shape. And - so it's an incredible process.
STEIN: And in this week's issue of the journal Nature, Little and her colleagues are reporting it worked.
LITTLE: We actually turned them into kidneys. And I think what's amazing is that we didn't make one cell type. We actually made the different cell types that you need to form a kidney. It's really exciting, and I think this is a really big advance.
STEIN: Now, Little hasn't made a fully functioning kidney. She's made what she calls an organoid, a very primitive kidney. It's a puny little thing, so it's only doing some of the things an adult kidney does.
LITTLE: What it isn't is the size of a human kidney, and what it isn't is completely functional like an adult kidney. And what it isn't is connected to a body.
STEIN: But Little says it is doing some things like filtering blood. And she's working on getting it to do more. In the meantime, the primitive kidneys could possibly be used to help rescue failing kidneys by transplanting them into people's bodies and by pharmaceutical companies developing new drugs. Jamie Davies is doing similar research at the University of Edinburgh.
JAMIE DAVIES: The pharmaceutical industry is really interested in having organoids made from human cells that will be good proxies for real human kidneys so that they can do their safety testing on those.
STEIN: But the long-term goal is to be able to do a lot more.
DAVIES: The really long-term application and the thing that we're all trying to do is to produce, from a patient's own cells, to produce new kidneys for them, and this is taking quite a big step forward.
STEIN: But the day when doctors will be able to grow patients whole new kidneys in their lab is probably still many years away. Rob Stein, NPR News.
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