Science’s dream of creating perfect custom organs on demand as soon as a patient needs one is still a long way off. But tiny versions are already serving as useful research tools and stepping stones toward full-fledged replacements.
Australian researchers have grown hundreds of mini human kidneys in the past few years. Known as organoids, they function much like their full-grown counterparts, minus a few features due to a lack of blood supply.
Cultivated in a petri dish, these kidneys are still a shadow of their human counterparts. They grow no larger than one-sixth of an inch in diameter; fully developed organs are up to five inches in length. They contain no more than a few dozen nephrons, the kidney’s individual blood-filtering unit, whereas a fully-grown kidney has about 1 million nephrons. And the dish variety live for just a few weeks.
But Melissa Little, head of the kidney research laboratory at the Murdoch Children’s Institute in Melbourne, says these organoids are invaluable tools for research. Although renal failure is rare in children, more than half of those who suffer from such a disorder inherited it.
The mini kidneys enable scientists to better understand the progression of such disorders because they can be grown with a patient’s specific genetic condition.
Mature stem cells can be extracted from a patient’s blood sample and then reprogrammed to become like embryonic cells, able to turn into any type of cell in the body. It’s akin to walking back the clock so that the cells regain unlimited potential for development. (The Japanese scientist who pioneered this technique was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2012.) These “induced pluripotent stem cells” can then be chemically coaxed to grow into mini kidneys that have the patient’s genetic disorder.
“The (genetic) defects are quite clear in the organoids, and they can be monitored in the dish,” Little says. To date, her research team has created organoids from 20 different stem cell lines.
Medication regimens can also be tested on the organoids, allowing specific tailoring for each patient. For now, such testing remains restricted to mice, but Little says it eventually will be done on human organoids so that the results can more accurately reflect how a given patient will respond to particular drugs.
Although these organoids cannot yet replace kidneys, Little says they may plug a huge gap in renal care by assisting in developing new treatments for chronic conditions. Currently, most patients with a serious kidney disorder see their options narrow to dialysis or organ transplantation. The former not only requires multiple sessions a week, but takes a huge toll on patient health.
Ten percent of older patients on dialysis die every year in the U.S. Aside from the physical trauma of organ transplantation, finding a suitable donor outside of a family member can be difficult.
Meanwhile, the ongoing creation of organoids is supplying Little and her colleagues with enough information to create larger and more functional organs in the future. According to Little, researchers in the Netherlands, for example, have found that implanting organoids in mice leads to the creation of vascular growth, a potential pathway toward creating bigger and better kidneys.
And while Little acknowledges that creating a fully-formed custom organ is the ultimate goal, the mini organs are an important bridge step.
“This is just another great example of the potential of pluripotent stem cells, and I am just passionate to see it do some good.”