Mini kidneys grown from urine cells

Wednesday, 13 March, 2019

Mini kidneys grown from urine cells

Dutch researchers have successfully created kidney organoids from human kidney adult stem cells and urine cells, in a breakthrough that could lead to a wide range of new treatments that are less onerous for kidney patients.

Thanks to recent developments in stem cell research, scientists can grow mini intestines, livers, lungs and pancreases in the lab. Recently, by growing so-called pluripotent stem cells, mini kidneys have also been created.

Researchers from Utrecht University, collaborating with the University Medical Center Utrecht, the Hubrecht Institute, the Princess Máxima Center and organ-on-a-chip company MIMETAS, have now grown their own kidney tubules derived from human kidney adult stem cells in microfluidic chips; urine cells also proved to be ideal for this purpose. Their work has been published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

“Scientists at the Hubrecht Institute managed to reprogram stem cells found in the human kidney cortex to cells that are similar to tubular cells of the kidney,” said Henriette Lanz, Director of Biology at MIMETAS. “From these cells, my team has grown three-dimensional perfused kidney tubules.

“We have discovered that these tubules are fully polarised, meaning that they distinguish inside from outside, just like in a real kidney. Moreover, the biologically important barrier function of the kidney tubes is intact. We show that transporter activity is functional, which is a hallmark of kidney tissue, responsible for pumping of nutrients and toxicants across the kidney barrier. We can grow 40 of such tubules in one single OrganoPlate.”

Kidney organoids. Image credit: Frans Schutgens (Hubrecht Institute).

A mini kidney from the lab doesn’t look like a normal kidney, but the simple cell structures share many of the characteristics of real kidneys. Researchers can thus use them to study certain kidney diseases.

“We can use these mini kidneys to model various disorders — hereditary kidney diseases, infections and cancer — which allows us to study in detail what exactly is going wrong,” said Hans Clevers, professor of molecular genetics at Utrecht University and the University Medical Center Utrecht and group leader at the Hubrecht Institute. “This helps us to understand the workings of healthy kidneys better and, hopefully, in the future, we will be able to develop treatments for kidney disorders.”

Mini kidneys can also be used to help kidney transplant patients, who are at risk of contracting a viral infection — an issue which currently has no effective treatment. Marianne Verhaar, a professor of experimental nephrology at UMC Utrecht, said, “In the lab, we can give a mini kidney a viral infection which some patients contract following a kidney transplant. We can then establish whether this infection can be cured using a specific drug. And we can also use mini kidneys created from the tissue of a patient with kidney cancer to study cancer.”

Verhaar said she collaborates with medics, researchers and technical experts at a single location — the Regenerative Medicine Centre Utrecht — and that this collaboration has made a huge difference to their research. “We hope that, together, we can improve treatments for kidney patients. In the long term, we hope to be able to use mini kidneys to create a real, functioning kidney — a tailor-made kidney — too. But that’s still a long way.”

Top image caption: Cross-section of a 3D reconstructed kidney organoid. Image credit: Anne Rios (Princess Máxima Center).

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