Researchers use robots to grow mini-kidneys to help cure disease

Researchers at the University of Washington are growing organs that may someday safe your life.

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Benjamin Freedman is a scientist—but he may not be if it weren’t for his uncle.

“The thing that really got me into it was my uncle had kidney disease at the time and I was thinking we’ve got to use these stem cell technologies to find a better therapy for people with this disease,” Freedman told us from inside his lab at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

For the last decade Freedman has been researching kidney disease and in 2015 he had a breakthrough. Using microscopic stem cells and with help from robots he grows thousands of kidneys every day.

The robots insert a compound into time stem cell samples—38 at one time. The trays containing the cells mixed with the compound are then put inside an incubator that’s kept at 98 degrees.

It takes three weeks to develop a mini-organ, and they’re so small you can only see them under a microscope that magnifies the images by roughly 1,000.

“If we zoom in each one of these wells contains several of these mini kidney organoids, these small structures,” researcher Nelly Cruz explained, showing us the images on a computer.

So what do Freedman and his team do with them? The answer is twofold.

“We’re using these little mini organs for clinical trials in a dish to try to figure out what drugs can cure different kidney diseases,” he told us.

The other application may be even more impressive: The wait for a kidney transplant is long and arduous and even those lucky enough to receive a compatible one will eventually reject it.

“It’s not like if you get a kidney transfer they last forever, you have to get another after 10 or 15 years. Because your body rejects it no matter what you do,” Freedman explained.

But this technology is essentially growing a kidney just like the one you have, a clone—only healthy.

“Our bodies will be very happy with our own cells; they will just reject cells from other people,” said Freedman.

They've done some implanting in animals but haven’t had positive results.

"Not so far,” Freedman said, yet that’s not so far off either.

"If we do well I think we could potentially start trials in humans in about 10 years."

That's about the time his uncle will need a new kidney; he waited five years for his first and that was five years ago.

"Oh, if this works it will change for him and many others. There are so many people in need of these transplants," Freedman said.