Research

‘Kidney on a chip’ research receives multi-million-dollar funding for drug testing

By Sunny Wang  The Daily

Kidney on a chip animation

 

A kidney is composed of over 1 million filtering units called nephrons, and scientists have made parts of the nephron into a credit card sized bioengineered chip to study kidney disease. Lead by Dr. Jonathan Himmelfarb, the director of the Kidney Research Institute (KRI) and a nephrology professor at the UW School of Medicine, the “kidney on a chip” project recently received funding from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) to utilize the chips in clinical trials.

Himmelfarb
Jonathan Himmelfarb, MD

The $35.5 million funds are given to multiple projects across the United States that use microphysiological bioengineered systems to study diseases including tendon inflammation, cancer, and kidney diseases which the KRI researchers are focused on studying. Started in 2012, the project aims to build a miniature environment in which human cells can grow into living functional units so they can be observed under both healthy and diseased conditions.

According to Himmelfarb, new drugs and treatments can potentially be harmful because of individual differences in patients. To customize the best treatment plan, KRI researchers hope to first cure the disease on the microphysiological chip and then translate the successful result to the patient. 

The chip is made from stem cells derived from the patient’s urine. This lets doctors test treatments on a “copy” of the kidney before testing them on patients themselves and hopefully prevent side effects of the therapies. 

“[The chip] falls into a precision medicine construct where the idea is to treat each person with a given disease as an individual,” Himmelfarb said. “[We want to] find the right treatment at the right dose at the right time for that person. All of these efforts contribute to developments in personalized medicine.” 

Conventional models of testing new drugs include two-dimensional cell culture systems and animal models, which both have serious limitations. As Himmelfarb explained, two-dimensional cell culture provides cells with an isolated growing environment on the petri dish. The lack of interactions with surrounding cells, fluids, and organs makes the model an unrealistic reflection of the condition of the cells. 

The team infuses cells and neighboring proteins in a three-dimensional space created in the chip, which better mimics the condition in human kidneys. 

“The three-dimensional architecture is very important to help cells to function because [in the chip] cells sense cues for how to behave from the external environment and from their neighbors,” he said. 

Himmelfarb also mentioned that animal models may not accurately reflect the effectiveness of drugs for people, because human disease conditions are different from animals. Since lab animals are genetically identical and treated the same way, it is hard to translate the result to a human population which is highly diverse in ages, lifestyles, pre-existing conditions, and so on.

Around 85% of late-stage clinical trials fail due to concerns about safety and effectiveness. When introducing the chip to clinical trials, the team hopes to reduce the physical and financial harm to patients caused by ineffective treatment. 

The chip is not solely used in clinical trials. In 2019, the kidney chips, along with three other organs-on-chips, were sent to the International Space Station and exposed in microgravity for two weeks. 

Reach reporter Sunny Wang at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @sunnyqwang64

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