Researchers have grown kidney-like organs in a laboratory dish, the latest advance in the effort to bioengineer complex human organs for medical use.
In a study reported Wednesday in the journal Nature, the team described a set of experiments that transformed a human skin cell into a kidney-like structure about five millimeters across. It consisted of a dozen different cell types and displayed some of the intricate anatomy of a mature organ.
“What we have is the equivalent of a first-trimester human kidney,” said Melissa Little, development biologist at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia, and a lead author of the study. The institute was established by the mother of Rupert Murdoch , the executive chairman of News Corp, which publishes The Wall Street Journal. In 2011, Mr. Murdoch and his family provided 10 million Australian dollars to the institute.
The lab-made organ is a long way from being a fully functioning kidney that could be usefully transplanted into a person. But it may be complex enough for another purpose: to test drugs.
Scientists typically rely on animal experiments to determine whether a new compound is toxic to the kidney, but the approach isn’t very predictive. A pharmaceutical company can spend millions of dollars developing a drug, only to discover when they begin human trials that the compound is harmful and has to be ditched. Kidney toxicity is one of the main reasons why new drugs don’t make it to the market.
“The great hope is that drug companies will use the new lab-grown kidneys to screen drugs” instead of relying mainly on animal experiments, said Jamie Davis, a tissue engineering expert at the University of Edinburgh, who wasn’t involved in the Nature study.