Cells growing in culture and animal models are useful in research studies, but scientists have also been creating miniature versions of human organs, called organoids, to investigate biology and disease. Now researchers at Utrecht University, University Medical Center Utrecht and Hubrecht Institute have used cells found in urine to generate organoids that model the kidney. Not only can these organoids be used for research, but they can also be made from patient samples so that individual cases and potential treatments can be studied in the lab to find the best fit for the patient. The work has been reported in Nature Biotechnology.
These lab-made kidney organoids can be created from adult stem cells and urine cells harvested from patients. While these are small and simple models, they still have many of the same features seen in normal kidneys.
“We can use these mini kidneys to model various disorders: hereditary kidney diseases, infections, and cancer. This allows us to study in detail what exactly is going wrong,” said Hans Clevers, Professor of Molecular Genetics at Utrecht University and the University Medical Center Utrecht, and group leader at the Hubrecht Institute. “This helps us to understand the workings of healthy kidneys better, and hopefully, in the future, we will be able to develop treatments for kidney disorders.”
Patients that have to receive a kidney transplant are also at risk of getting a viral infection for which there is no treatment.
“In the lab, we can give a mini kidney a viral infection which some patients contract following a kidney transplant,” noted Professor of Experimental Nephrology at UMC Utrecht, Marianne Verhaar. “We can then establish whether this infection can be cured using a specific drug. And we can also use mini kidneys created from the tissue of a patient with kidney cancer to study cancer.”
In this study, the researchers also used their technique to develop organoids using a urine sample from a cystic fibrosis patient; their efforts improved treatment efficacy for the patient.
This work was the product of efforts by a team of researchers, clinicians, and technical experts. “Collaborating in this way has made a huge difference to our research. We hope that, together, we can improve treatments for kidney patients. In the long term, we hope to be able to use mini kidneys to create a real, functioning kidney - a tailor-made kidney - too. But that's still a long way,” added Verhaar.
Learn more about organoids from the video.