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Meet Chip: Kidneys

When the kidneys filter the blood, they remove waste products and balance the amounts of water and various salts. Those waste products include drugs, which can injure the kidneys as they pass through. Many drugs fail in the development process because they turn out to be harmful to the kidneys. Scientists need ways to test drugs for the potential for damage.

Kidney on a Chip

NIH-supported scientists at the University of Washington are building a model that will place human kidney cells on 3-D scaffolding. In the body, the kidney does the first part of its filtration in a tube called the proximal convoluted tubule, which is wrapped in a matrix of tiny blood vessels. The scientists are focusing on this part of the kidney for their chip.

Because the kidney works through the interplay of blood vessels, tubules and other cells, the scientists cannot recreate the kidney’s activity simply by growing single kinds of cells in the lab. With a kidney on a chip, however, the researchers would be able to examine the work of the proximal tubule and even damage it to see how it works when damaged. 

In the top left image (A), tiny human blood vessels were placed on a device that mimics the environment inside the human kidney. The microvessel tissue, which is red, lined up as it was supposed to, next to the green support cells. The top right image (B) shows an extreme close-up of the blood vessels with tiny holes that allow molecules to pass in and out — a characteristic of blood vessels in the kidneys. In the bottom left image (C), fluid flows through the vessels. When scientists add a drug that causes clotting, the red blood cells and platelets attach to the vessels (D), similarly to microvessels within the body.

Not all tiny blood vessels are the same; they can have different structures depending on the organ. The above images show the work of researchers at the University of Washington, who have transplanted micro-blood vessels to act like kidney blood vessels. In the top left image (A), tiny human blood vessels were placed on a device that mimics the environment inside the human kidney. The microvessel tissue, which is red, lined up as it was supposed to, next to the green support cells. The top right image (B) shows an extreme close-up of the blood vessels with tiny holes that allow molecules to pass in and out — a characteristic of blood vessels in the kidneys. In the bottom left image (C), fluid flows through the vessels. When scientists add a drug that causes clotting, the red blood cells and platelets attach to the vessels (D), similarly to microvessels within the body.

Looking Ahead

Having a kidney on a chip would help scientists understand how the kidney processes new drugs and whether those drugs damage the kidneys. Scientists also would be able to study the workings of both healthy and diseased kidneys.

In addition, scientists could integrate a working model of the kidney with other chips representing other organ systems. This process would help researchers understand how multiple organs handle various drugs simultaneously, for example, any changes that the liver makes to drugs before they get to the kidneys. Eventually, this process could speed up the development and approval of new drugs and treatments to help people with many kinds of diseases and conditions.  

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Last updated: 05-15-2015
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