Scientists have, for the first time, succeeded in isolating precursors of human kidney cells, allowing researchers to better understand how the kidneys develop in humans — knowledge that could be used to create a means for kidney regeneration in patients with chronic kidney disease or injury.
The technique used in the study, titled “Direct Isolation and Characterization of Human Nephron Progenitors” and published in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine, may also be used to study the development of other organs.
A crucial unit of the kidney, called the nephron, was the focus of the research team at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA). Nephrons filter out waste from the blood, produce urine, and control the balance of salts in the blood.
Humans have between 500,000 and 1 million nephrons in their kidneys, and all of them are formed before birth from nephron progenitor cells. At week 36 of pregnancy, the process is complete, and the kidneys become unable to produce more filtering units.
This is a huge problem for people who lose a substantial part of their nephrons to kidney disease, as the inability to regenerate nephrons leads to chronic kidney failure.
Nephron progenitor cells have, up to now, been studied in animal models or using so-called induced pluripotent stem cells — a laborious method, done in the lab, where a mature cell is reversed to earlier developmental stages.
The team used an entirely different approach to isolate human nephron progenitor cells, using probes that recognize the expression of genes active only during this stage of cell development.
“In addition to defining the genetic profile of human nephron progenitors, this system will facilitate studies of human kidney development, providing a novel tool for renal regeneration and bioengineering purposes,” Laura Perin, PhD, co-director of CHLA’s GOFARR Laboratory for Organ Regenerative Research and Cell Therapeutics in Urology, and senior author of the study, said in a news release.
Perin refers to the study as a proof-of-concept, showing that the technique can also be used in other research applications.
“It is an important tool that will allow scientists to study cell renewal and differentiation in human cells, perhaps offering clues to how to regulate such development,” Stefano Da Sacco, the study’s first author, concluded.