Kidney dialysis can be disruptive in a patient's life. Just ask Kristal Higgins of Mississippi. She's been on dialysis for all 13 years of her daughter's life.
"And my daughter understands that in order for me to feel well, I have to dialyze. So it's just like a parent would say, 'I'm going to work.' I say, 'Okay, I'm going to dialyze.' I'm going to dialysis. Or I have to go to the hospital for a blood transfusion,'" said Higgins.
The American Kidney Fund says right now 1 in 7 American adults have kidney disease — and that number is growing. People of color are at greater risk for kidney failure.
Now there is something that could potentially disrupt the kidney dialysis and transplant process: An implantable bio-artificial kidney.
Kidneys help remove toxins from the blood, flushing them out through our bladder via urine. If a kidney isn't working and the condition is untreated, it can lead to health problems like fluid retention, anemia or bone and heart disease. It can also be fatal.
In the artificial bio-kidney, silicon nanotechnology "membranes" do the filtering, and then tiny slots with actual human kidney cells perform other renal functions, like balancing electrolytes and making Vitamin D.
The researchers harvested kidney cells from cadaver kidneys that could not be transplanted, and worked on making sure the cells remained healthy. The cells maintained their function. And not only that — they could actually grow in the artificial environment of the device.
The device is powered by blood pressure and is still in the very early stages. It's been proven to work in a pig. Now researchers are focused on scaling the process up to human size and function.
Biomedical engineer Shuvo Roy is one of the leaders of the project.
"Everybody agrees this is a big problem. Everybody agrees something has to be done." said Roy.
Roy says it will likely take research funding, philanthropy and private industry to help academic researchers get to that point.
And then of course, researchers will need patients willing to be in clinical trials to test the bionic kidneys. Roy estimates the scaling up could take three to four years. Meanwhile, patients like Higgins mark time. She's waited for a kidney transplant for six years.
"I want to travel. I'm sort of limited because I dialyze last three times a week, about four hours each treatment," said Higgins.
As of Aug. 16, Higgins and more than 88,000 other people are waiting for a new kidney. Meanwhile, researchers race against the clock to make a groundbreaking advancement.
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