By Dr. Stephen Pastan
I was amazed to hear news reports last week about the early kidney experiments in the new field of Regenerative Medicine. Researchers at Mass General in Boston were able to use detergents to wash the living cells out of a rat kidney, leaving behind a ghost-like “scaffold” which preserved the shape of the kidney. They were then able to “repopulate” the rat kidneys with a mixture of human and rat cells.
After a few days, the experimental kidneys had a similar appearance to normal kidneys, and were able to produce urine when transplanted into a rat, although they didn’t function very well. This experiment is really a “proof of concept” that one day it may be possible to generate a functioning human kidney this way, solving the shortage of kidneys needed for transplantation. Repopulating a kidney scaffold with a patient’s own cells might create an organ which could be transplanted, and would not require any immunosuppressive medications. This scaffold technique has also been used to create artificial hearts (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9hEFUpTVPA) and lungs in the lab.
Although this research is incredibly exciting, and the entire field of Regenerative Medicine offers hope to those in need of organ transplantation, it will probably be decades before this research results in organs that are ready for human transplantation, if the enormous technical hurdles are ever overcome.
Until that day comes it is important that we stay focused on taking full advantage of knowledge resulting from past research that is available to help patients today. For instance, we know that early detection and treatment of hypertension, diabetes and chronic kidney disease can prolong life and prevent or delay organ failure, postponing or eliminating the need for dialysis and kidney transplantation in the first place. So eat an apple and go exercise today. And don’t forget to sign your organ donor card.
Dr. Stephen Pastan is a member of the National Kidney Foundation’s Board of Directors. He is also Medical Director of the Kidney and Pancreas Transplant program at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia