10% of the world population is suffering from kidney diseases. There are about 37 million kidney patients in the US alone. Every year, 100,000 of them die because they are unable to have a kidney transplant.
Kidneys are a very essential part of the body. They keep chemistry for bodies normal. When individuals ingest something unhealthy, kidneys make it as non-toxic as possible for the body. They stop waste build up in the body, filter blood, make red blood cells, and regulate blood pressure.
Nephrons are the filters present in kidneys that filter the blood. They stop blood cells and proteins etc. from passing by and allow the toxic fluids and waste materials to pass by. The waste excretes in the form of urine and mixes cells and proteins into the bloodstream again.
Scientists are trying to overcome kidney diseases and renal failures. However, this is very complex as each kidney has more than one million intricately-structured nephrons.
New research performed by researchers at the University of Arkansas has given hope for artificial kidneys. They created a mechanical device that is able to behave with the blood the same as kidneys do.
The kidney works in two steps.
- First, clusters of blood vessels called glomeruli separate blood and proteins, from waste and water. It then sends back the blood with essential constituents.
- Then, it transfers the waste to the nephron network, which further goes under the filtration process. This process is called ion transport.
The focus of the study was on the second step; the filtration of waste. A porous mesh, made of platinum, was placed between two ion-exchange wafers. A wafer, using an electric field, pushed ions through membranes.
The platinum mesh acted as electrodes when examiners passed voltage through it. This enabled the researchers to change the transport rate of different ions selected. They tested the device using many ions and found it useful in all cases.
Producing artificial nephrons from living cells-based system, including stem cells, was attempted by the researchers. But it was not possible as the cells could not work without a proper biological system and environment.
In the absence of hormonal signaling that controls their functioning, biologically-based systems struggled to do exactly as nephrons function.
Christa Hestekin, the associate professor of chemical engineering and the lead author of the paper, explained that the system may potentially operate as an individual device or in combination with peritoneal dialysis to examine the relationship of the solution utilized in treatment.
She added that lesser alterations to the device may potentially allow it to operate as an artificial kidney with a possible implant.
In the US alone, 93,000 people need kidney transplants. An artificial kidney is still years away but the research can be a step towards it. However, it may be possible in the near future to put artificial nephrons into the natural kidney.
Scientists have attempted in past to create artificial kidney or nephrons. In 2015, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory made a bio-printed kidney tissue that was capable of performing some functions of nephrons.
In 2016, experts used 3D printing for the purpose but the nephron tubules with the vascular network for blood flow lived very little in two months.
Hestekin thinks that the nephrons in combination with ultra or nano-filtrations, or ‘reverse osmosis systems’ and artificial kidney can be made.
Though artificial kidneys would not arrive in the coming few years, yet it would be a huge revolution in the medical field when they arrive.