Stem cells from kidneys - World first from Australian scientists

According to Australian scientists, their latest stem cell research breakthrough will bring new treatments for a growing epidemic of chronic kidney disease. They are the first in the world to generate a type of stem cell from human kidney cells. The Melbourne scientists are hoping their discovery will have far-reaching effects in treating the disease.

The team from Monash University and the CSIRO, said on Tuesday it hoped the discovery would lead to the development of “off-the-shelf mature kidney cells” to be used for drug testing and modelling “in the dish”. According to Monash University Associate Professor Sharon Ricardo, chronic kidney disease leading to renal failure was now a risk for one in three people. She explained, “Chronic kidney disease is a growing epidemic, not only in Australia, but really worldwide…Kidney disease leading to end stage renal failure ... the incidence is rising and alarmingly, it's between six to eight per cent per annum, to the fact now where one in three people are at risk of developing chronic kidney disease and five Australians commence dialysis or receive a transplant every day.”

For this experiment the Melbourne scientists took human kidney cells and reprogrammed them to become similar to embryonic stem cells, known as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. Like embryonic stem cells, these cells can divide indefinitely and be used to study the progression of disease and the effects of treatments “in the dish” in laboratories. As a next step the researchers will use the cells to study genetic kidney disease, modelling the progression of the disease in laboratory dishes, testing drug treatments and studying the cause of the diseases.

“As the kidney iPS stem cells can divide indefinitely in the culture dish we can make a limitless source of these cells, made from patients with genetic kidney disease, we can do disease modelling in the culture dish, screen drugs on these cells and actually better understand how genetic kidney disorders develop in the first place…Ultimately it's really hoped that iPS cells may one day provide a source of replacement cells for these patients and of course as we're deriving iPS cells from the patients, they would be genetically matched and so would obviously minimize the risk of rejection using these cells,” Ms Ricardo further explained.

After the breakthrough the researchers have already made four stem cell lines from patients with two of the most common genetic kidney disorders, to be used in research. Ms Ricardo said one of the most common kidney diseases, polycystic kidney disease (PKD), affects more than 12.5 million people around the world. With one in 1000 births affected, many affected die before or at birth, with those who do go on to live developing renal failure later in life, treatable only by long-term dialysis or a kidney transplant. “The incidence of PKD is more than Huntington Disease, hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and Downs Syndrome all combined…That's why we've targeted kidneys, in the hope of making off-the-shelf kidney cells to screen for new drug therapies for these patients,” she said.

Bernie Tuch, director of the NSW Stem Cell Network, welcomed the “novel” work. “The advantage in having a kidney cell as the source iPS cell is that it's the only type of cell that retains the full genetic defect,” he said. According to stem cell scientist Andrew Laslett with CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering and Monash University's Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, until now stem cell researchers have avoided the kidney as the organ is enormously complex, being made up of many cell types.

Along with their Monash colleagues, Associate Professor Ricardo and Dr Laslett described their work this week in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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