Progress Towards an Implantable, Bioartificial Kidney

The future of our organs is as much artificial as it is fleshy. In the competition to develop a source of replacement organs built from scratch, the biotechnology-focused materials science researchers will give the tissue engineers a run for their money. Viable artificial hearts are in trials at the present time, for example, at the same time as decellularization of donor heart values is employed to build replacement parts for injured hearts. Neither path ahead is quite ready for prime time, but a wide range of trials are underway for early stage products, and an even wider range of work is taking place in the laboratory.

So to the future of bioartificial organs. A computer doesn't look much like a brain, a slide-rule, or a typewriter. The bioartificial pancreas of the future won't look a whole lot like the pancreas you're carrying around with you at the moment. In parallel to work on regenerative medicine and repair of aging - aiming to maintain the body we have - we will see a great breadth of development in semi-organic prostheses and other functional replacements, and the growth of support infrastructure for that technology.

At the end of the day, some decades from now, it'll all be nanotechnology of course: fully artificial all the way down to the carefully tuned cell-substitute nanomachines. But in the meanwhile, and in the early days of this biotechnology revolution, competition is good for progress. On this subject, I see that matters are moving ahead for the kidney:

UCSF researchers today unveiled a prototype model of the first implantable artificial kidney, in a development that one day could eliminate the need for dialysis. The device, which would include thousands of microscopic filters as well as a bioreactor to mimic the metabolic and water-balancing roles of a real kidney, is being developed in a collaborative effort by engineers, biologists and physicians nationwide. ... [The] goal is to apply silicon fabrication technology, along with specially engineered compartments for live kidney cells, to shrink that large-scale technology into a device the size of a coffee cup. The device would then be implanted in the body without the need for immune suppressant medications, allowing the patient to live a more normal life.

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The two-stage system uses a hemofilter to remove toxins from the blood, while applying recent advances in tissue engineering to grow renal tubule cells to provide other biological functions of a healthy kidney. The process relies on the body's blood pressure to perform filtration without needing pumps or an electrical power supply.

Cast your mind back and recall what a mobile phone looked like in 1980, 30 years ago now. Consider, in turn, what a bioartificial kidney, pancreas, or liver will look like in 2040, 30 years from now. The same forces of progress are at work.

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