Using outer space for kidney treatments on Earth

July 19, 2017

Kidney issues in humans develop over the course of decades, but in an environment without gravity — such as outer space — kidney issues develop much quicker, developing over the course of weeks and months. While this poses risks to astronauts, the accelerated cycle can play a valuable role in kidney research.

UW Medicine, the UW School of Pharmacy and the Kidney Research Institute have partnered with the Seattle-based organ-on-a-chip company Nortis to develop the “kidney-on-a-chip,” which will be used in a research study on the International Space Station. A total of 24 chips will be sent into space, possibly as soon as next year. The project is an attempt to understand how microgravity and other factors worsen kidney health, and researchers hope to use their results to design better treatments on Earth for proteinuria (the presence of protein in the urine that signals possible kidney problems), osteoporosis and kidney stones.

The project will be broken into two phases, with the first measuring the effects of weightlessness on healthy kidney cells, and the second phase will take place about 18 months later and will measure the effect of weightlessness on diseased kidney cells. Astronauts on the space station will monitor and maintain the chips, and they will then return them to the UW team for examination.

Each of the chips is about the size of a credit card, and they are a laboratory model for how the organ is affected by drugs, toxins and environmental exposures. Each one contains a central chamber lined with live kidney cells. The kidney-on-a-chip was developed by a team led by the director of the Kidney Research Institute — which is a collaboration between UW Medicine and Northwest Kidney Centers — and three researchers from the UW School of Pharmacy, using technology from Nortis.

The chips offer a safer, more accurate, less invasive means of testing drugs before they are tried in patients. It will also reduce the need for animal testing in drug discovery research. The project will officially kick off in late September at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Read more from UW about the project. (Tim Pfarr)


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