Lab-Grown Mini Kidneys Are Bringing Science Closer to Custom Organs

A model of a human kidney.

(Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash)


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.

Although organoids cannot yet replace kidneys, they are invaluable tools for research.

The Lowdown

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.

An organoid kidney created by the Murdoch Children's Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

Photo Credit: Shahnaz Khan.

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.

Next Steps

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.

"This is just another great example of the potential of pluripotent stem cells."

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."

Ron Shinkman
Ron Shinkman is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine publication Catalyst, California Health Report, Fierce Healthcare, and many other publications. He has been a finalist for the prestigious NIHCM Foundation print journalism award twice in the past five years. Shinkman also served as Los Angeles Bureau Chief for Modern Healthcare and as a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Business Journal. He has an M.A. in English from California State University and a B.A. in English from UCLA.
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Kidney transplant patient Robert Waddell, center, with his wife and children after being off immunosuppresants; photo aken last summer in Perdido Key, FL. Left to right: Christian, Bailey, Rob, Karen (wife), Robby and Casey.

Photo courtesy Rob Waddell

Rob Waddell dreaded getting a kidney transplant. He suffers from a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes the uncontrolled growth of cysts that gradually choke off kidney function. The inherited defect has haunted his family for generations, killing his great grandmother, grandmother, and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.

But he saw how difficult it was for his mother and sister, who also suffer from this condition, to live with the side effects of the drugs they needed to take to prevent organ rejection, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, and even kidney failure because of their toxicity. Many of his relatives followed the same course, says Waddell: "They were all on dialysis, then a transplant and ended up usually dying from cancers caused by the medications."

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Linda Marsa
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.

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This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.

Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.

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Aaron F. Mertz
Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019 to help foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory and to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges. He completed postdoctoral training in cell biology at Rockefeller University, a doctorate in physics at Yale University, a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.