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Engineering mini kidneys to understand development and disease

18 August 2023

Dr Mattia Gerli, from University College London and the Royal Free Hospital, has been awarded a PhD studentship of £89,000 to grow miniature, simplified versions of kidneys called organoids to support personalised approaches to kidney disease management.

The problem

The kidney is an extremely complex organ with many different types of cells working together, making it difficult to study in the lab. Organoids are miniature versions of organs, such as kidneys, that can be grown in laboratories allowing researchers to study how different organs work, what goes wrong during disease and developmental problems, and to test potential new treatments.

Some children are born with kidney disease. It would be extremely useful to be able to grow organoids from cells from babies known to be at risk of kidney disease to study the disease before the baby is born, test potential therapies and possibly even intervene to prevent kidney damage, but there is currently no non-invasive way to do this.

Mattia Gerli
Dr Mattia Gerli

The solution

Researchers can grow kidney organoids that have all the cell types and arrangements that you would expect to find in a fully developed kidney from adult urine samples, and Mattia aims to build on this research. Developing human foetuses are cushioned in a liquid called amniotic fluid, and this fluid is mostly made up of the developing foetus’ urine, which will contain the same kidney cells as adult urine. Samples of amniotic fluid can be removed in a process called amniocentesis; which is already routinely performed during pregnancy to test for genetic conditions. With the parents’ consent, Mattia’s team will aim to grow kidney organoids from samples of amniotic fluid.

“This award is of great importance for my team. This will allow us to progress our pioneering research on the derivation of renal organoids from the human amniotic fluid. Our innovative technology aims at modelling the kidney tubule and its function in vitro,  potentially advancing the way we diagnose and study congenital kidney disease prenatally. Ultimately this will benefit the families affected by these conditions."  Dr Mattia Gerli

Kidney organoids with nuclei (Blue), integrin beta 1 (Green) and Tight junction protein ZO1(Red)
Kidney organoids with nuclei (Blue), integrin beta 1 (Green) and Tight junction protein ZO1(Red)
Kidney organoids with Pax8 (Red) and F-actin (Green).
Kidney organoids with Pax8 (Red) and F-actin (Green).

What this means for kidney patients

If successful, this would be a huge step towards personalised medicine, allowing researchers to identify and study disease, test potential therapies, and will even open the possibility of correcting kidney problems before a baby is born. 

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