• Inventor of the machine, Vincent Garvey (Supplied)
An engineering challenge has sparked the invention of a low-cost, solar powered dialysis machine that could eventually help millions of kidney disease patients.
By
Yasmin Noone

10 Mar 2016 - 12:15 AM  UPDATED 10 Mar 2016 - 12:15 AM

A new low-cost, compact kidney dialysis system, which runs off solar power and purifies water from any source, has been created by a semi-retired engineer from Isle of Man, UK.

The world-first prototype has been designed to rival the bulkiness and expense of a conventional dialysis machine that runs on pure water and costs around $22,000 per unit.

This new ‘Care Station for Dialysis’ is so compact it can fit into a small suitcase. It uses a miniature distiller to purify incoming water and costs under $1000 to manufacture.

“We hope to be able to give people back some of their life,” says the machine’s inventor, Vincent Garvey. 

“Of course, before we get to this stage we must proceed through the phase of preparing for production and certification.”

Garvey says he designed the system in a way that avoids using completely new technologies wherever possible, to avoid risking a lengthy development phase of the product.

Many of the design details remain confidential with patents protecting the system’s “energy recovery technologies” and special techniques used to purify water.

However, Garvey revealed that the machine uses a standard solar panel to heat water taken from any source. Pure water, sterilised by steam, then fills empty peritoneal dialysis (PD) bags, which are ready for dialysis.

Challenge drives invention

A manufacturing engineer by profession, Mr Garvey had little knowledge of kidney disease, but he was inspired to work on such a device thanks to a new competition run by the Australian-founded George Institute for Global Health, the International Society of Nephrology, and the Asian Pacific Society of Nephrology.

Garvey’s winning design took out the US$100,000 for first place in the Affordable Dialysis Prize.

Executive director of The George Institute, Professor Vlado Perkovic, believes the invention could save the lives of millions around the world who have kidney failure but can’t afford treatment or access a conventional machine.

“Dialysis currently costs around $100,000 per person per year,” says Perkovic. “So in many countries, people with kidney failure end up paying for dialysis for as long as they can. And when the money runs out, they go home to die.”

“This invention is a smart way of bringing together a whole range of things that allows dialysis to be done more cheaply. It should allow a much broader group of people with kidney failure around the world to access dialysis.”

Cautious optimism

Kidney Health Australia CEO, Anne Wilson is also hopeful that the low-cost prototype will eventuate into a game-changing dialysis machine.

“If it is found to work safely and effectively in humans, after all the trials that need to be done are done, it would be revolutionary, not in the least for governments and health systems internationally,” says Wilson.

“When you’ve got a population on dialysis – up to about 4,500 in Australia on dialysis – and that’s projected to grow – then the total cost of dialysis is very high."

However, she explains, there is a caveat on her enthusiasm for the invention.

With plans to start animal trials next year and test the machine on humans within the next three years, there is no current guarantee that the system will work.

“New inventions are great but they don’t always work the way people say they will."

“So this is just the beginning. It will take a little while before we actually see the fruit of what looks like a tremendous innovation actually come to market to benefit patients," says Wilson. “You have to start somewhere and if it works, it will be well worth the wait.”