A mini-kidney formed in a dish from human-induced pluripotent stem cells. Minoru Takasato et al./Nature

Adding to our ever-growing collection of lab-grown organs, Australian scientists have managed to grow a “mini-kidney” from stem cells. The researchers aim to use these primitive, miniaturized organs to test drugs, model diseases and develop cell therapies. The study was published this week in Nature and was conducted in conjunction with researchers from the Netherlands.

The team from Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (MCRI) and The University of Queensland was led by Professor Melissa Little, who in 2013 grew a simpler mini-kidney that contained only two key cell types. In the latest study, the mini-kidneys are composed of the majority of the 20 cell types found in mature kidneys. The organoids were constructed in the lab by using pluripotent stem cells – those that can turn into any other type of cell in the body – and then mimicking the natural environment present during the development of kidney cells in the womb. 

By adding different growth factors to the stem cells over a period of time, the scientist constructed a tiny, rudimentary kidney that is remarkably similar to that of a developing human fetus in the first trimester of pregnancy.

The team hopes that the miniature organs will respond to drugs in the same way fully grown organs do. This would allow them to verify the efficacy of drugs used to treat kidneys disease as well as to test the effects of newly developed drugs on kidney tissue. Further down the line, this breakthrough could also lead to cell therapy and the bioengineering of replacement organs, providing new treatments for patients that suffer from kidney disease.

But not all applications are in the distant future. The new method allows researchers to grow personalized mini-kidneys from any person by using either skin or blood cells. “Making stem cells from patients with kidney disease, and then growing a mini-kidney that matches the patient, will help us understand that patient’s disease and develop treatments for them,” Professor Little said in a statement.

With 26 million Americans suffering from kidney disease, alongside one in three adults at risk of developing it, investing in therapies beyond transplants and dialysis is important to improve patient outcomes and therefore their quality of life.

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