Stem cell kidney gives hope to sufferers

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Growing a human kidney from stem cells is on the horizon after researchers successfully transplanted tissue into a living mouse in Melbourne. It is a step in the right direction for the millions diagnosed and at-risk of kidney disease.

Grant Monks was diagnosed with kidney failure as a baby. By the time he was six, he was undergoing regular dialysis treatment before having a kidney transplant at the age of 13, which sent his body into shock.

“And about a year later, I had another transplant, off the list, and I got about 6 months of reasonably healthy kidney function out of that, until my body unfortunately rejected it,” Mr Monks told SBS News.

He is now aged 24 and endures four hours of dialysis three times a week.

“You don't go to hospital and get better, it impacts you every day,” he said.

Kidney transplant recipient Grant Monks in hospital in Melbourne.
Kidney transplant recipient Grant Monks in hospital in Melbourne.
SBS News

Kidney failure on the increase

Mr Monks is one of 1.7 million Australians living with chronic kidney disease - a rate which is increasing according to Dr Lisa Murphy at Kidney Health Australia.

“It’s estimated that in 2020, there’s going to be around 41 thousand people with end-stage kidney disease.”

“What's even more alarming, is one in three of us are at risk of developing kidney disease,” she said.

Kidney failure is increasing at a rate of six per cent each year and kidney transplants are hard to get.

Combined Australian-Dutch trials 

But a team of Australian and Dutch researchers hope to improve on current outcomes.

After discovering how to use stem cells to build a mini-kidney, they successfully transplanted the tissue into a mouse, enabling blood flow through nephrons - or filters.

Director of Cell Biology at Melbourne’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Professor Melissa Little was part of the team whose research has been published in Stem Cell Reports.

“We actually showed you could take human stem cells and build tissue that was very much like human kidney and in this paper, we’ve actually shown that you can transplant that into an animal and have the animal actually provide a blood supply to the tissue," she said.

A transplant surgeon holds a kidney from the body of a live donor.
A transplant surgeon holds a kidney from the body of a live donor.
AAP

The mini-kidney was grown in a lab, and once transplanted, it matured inside the mouse.

“The animal was able to do this very easily. It had enough cues from the tissue that we put in, to know that it needed to put blood vessels in there.”

While the tissue reflects the complex cells and structures found in the human organ, further research is still needed.

“It has 50 filters and a human kidney has a million, so we have a long way to go, we've got problems in size and structure and ultimately, we'll have to make sure we can get the urine from the kidney, out of the body," said Professor Little.

Hope for kidney sufferers

Human kidney development is still many years away but the research is already providing hope for patients like Grant Monks.

“If there's less chance of rejection and there's something that can actually be grown and make it a bit more certain, then I think that's a great thing.”

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