UCSF

Implantable bioartificial kidney achieves preclinical milestone

The Kidney Project, a national effort to develop an implantable bioartificial kidney that could eliminate the need for dialysis, announced a key milestone in a November 7 presentation at the American Society of Nephrology Kidney Week 2019 conference in Washington, DC.

The project team reported that UC San Francisco scientists successfully implanted a prototype kidney bioreactor containing functional human kidney cells in large animals without significant safety concerns. The device, which is about the size of a deck of cards, did not trigger an immune reaction or cause blood clots, an important milestone on the road to future human trials.

“This is the first demonstration that kidney cells can be implanted successfully without immunosuppression in preclinical models and remain healthy enough to perform their function. This is a key milestone for us on the way to clinical trials in humans,” said Shuvo Roy, PhD, a faculty member in the Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences, a joint department of the UCSF Schools of Pharmacy and Medicine. “Based on these results, we can now focus on scaling up the bioreactor and combining it with the blood filtration component of the artificial kidney."

Kidney Project aims to give options to end stage renal disease patients

Nearly 750,000 Americans — and two million people around the world — are treated for end stage renal disease (ESRD). Rates of kidney disease are growing rapidly, leading to an urgent shortage of kidneys for transplant. As of 2016, there were only 21,000 donor kidneys available for transplant in the U.S. on a waiting list of nearly 100,000 and extending five to ten years.

Most patients awaiting a transplant survive by undergoing long and cumbersome dialysis treatments multiple times a week to clear toxins from their blood. Dialysis and other treatments for ESRD, which are universally covered by Medicare, cost $35 billion in 2016, representing seven percent of Medicare’s annual budget, and do not replace essential kidney functions such as regulating blood pressure, maintaining electrolyte balance, or producing hormones.

The Kidney Project is led by Roy and Vanderbilt University Medical Center nephrologist William H. Fissell, MD, who for more than a decade have been working to develop an implantable bioartificial kidney with the goal of eliminating dialysis and offering an option to kidney transplant.

The implantable device being developed by The Kidney Project consists of two components: a blood filtration system called the hemofilter, which removes toxins from the blood by passing it through silicon membranes fabricated with precisely shaped nanometer-scale pores; and a bioreactor, which contains cultured human kidney cells intended to perform other kidney functions, such as maintaining adequate fluid volume and blood pressure, adjusting salt levels, and producing essential hormones.

Following promising preclinical studies, The Kidney Project’s hemofiltration system is currently awaiting FDA approval for an initial clinical trial to evaluate its safety.

Bioreactor containing human kidney cells implanted without immune reaction or blood clots

In The Kidney Project’s November 7 Kidney Week presentation, Rebecca Gologorsky, MD, a UCSF surgical innovations fellow on the team, showed how silicon membranes inside the implanted bioreactor protect the enclosed human kidney cells from the host immune system by keeping blood-borne immune cells and proteins out of the device.

“It has been a holy grail of transplant therapies to find ways to avoid the need for lifelong immunosuppressive drugs that are often required to prevent immune rejection,” Roy said. “These drugs not only expose patients to infection and other harmful side effects but have been shown to directly harm transplanted cells and organs, eroding the therapeutic benefit of transplants over time.”

Another key benefit of avoiding immunosuppression is its cost to patients, Roy says. "Medicare currently covers dialysis for life, but immunosuppressive drugs are covered for just the first three years following transplant. Many patients who receive kidney transplants ultimately lose the new organ because they weren’t able to afford the immunosuppressive drugs needed to keep it healthy.”

Roy’s team also carefully engineered the prototype bioreactor to avoid triggering blood clots that could lead to pulmonary emboli or strokes, a major challenge faced by all patients with long-term medical implants. They achieved this by coating the silicon membrane filters that contact the blood with biologically friendly molecules and engineering the device to avoid the turbulent blood flow that can also trigger clotting.

“We couldn’t use the standard blood-friendly coatings that have been developed for heart valves, catheters, and other devices because they are so thick that they would completely block the pores of our silicon membranes,” Roy said. “One of our accomplishments has been to engineer a suitable surface chemistry on our silicon membranes that makes them look biologically friendly to blood."

The results, Roy says, demonstrate progress towards The Kidney Project’s hoped-for clinical “trifecta”: a heart-powered device that runs without batteries or other external connections that could introduce infection risk, and which can clean the blood without anti-rejection drugs or blood thinners.

The researchers now aim to scale up the prototype bioreactor to contain more cells in order to test whether the implanted device can supplement kidney function in animals with kidney failure, with the ultimate goal of eventually moving the device to human safety trials.

“Advancing a complex cell therapy like this into the clinic will not be a trivial task — for instance, it will require substantial investments in cell production and characterization in controlled facilities to avoid any possibility of contamination,” Roy said. “Now we’ve confirmed that we’re on the right track to move forward with these efforts.”

More info

See abstract online for authorship and funding information: An Immunoprotected Bioreactor for Implanted Renal Cell Therapy.


About the School: The UCSF School of Pharmacy is a premier graduate-level academic organization dedicated to improving health through precise therapeutics. It succeeds through innovative research, by educating PharmD health professional and PhD science students, and by caring for the therapeutics needs of patients while exploring innovative new models of patient care. The School was founded in 1872 as the first pharmacy school in the American West. It is an integral part of UC San Francisco, a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide.