Scientists Generate “Mini-kidney” Structures from Human Stem Cells

Kidney Disease represents a major and unsolved health issue worldwide. Once damaged by disease, kidneys rarely recover their original level of function, and this highlights the urgent need for better knowledge of kidney development and physiology.

Now, a team of researchers led by scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies has developed a novel platform to study kidney diseases. This new platform should open new avenues for the future application of regenerative medical strategies to restore kidney function.

For the first time, the Salk researchers have generated three-dimensional kidney structures from human stem cells. These findings were reported November 17, 2013 in Nature Cell Biology, and they suggest new ways to study the development and diseases of the kidneys and to discover and test new drugs that target human kidney cells.

Scientists had created precursors of kidney cells using stem cells as recently as this past summer, but the Salk team was the first to coax human stem cells into forming three-dimensional cellular structures similar to those found in our kidneys.

“Attempts to differentiate human stem cells into renal cells have had limited success,” says senior study author Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a professor in Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory and holder of the Roger Guillemin Chair. “We have developed a simple and efficient method that allows for the differentiation of human stem cells into well-organized 3D structures of the ureteric bud (UB), which later develops into the collecting duct system.”

The Salk findings demonstrate for the first time that pluripotent stem cells capable of differentiating into the many cells and tissue types that make up the body can be induced to differentiate into those cells found in the ureteric bud, which is an early developmental structure of the kidneys. Furthermore, these same cells can differentiate further into three-dimensional structures in organ cultures. Ureteric bud cells form the early stages of the human urinary and reproductive organs during development and later develop into a conduit for urine drainage from the kidneys. Izpisua Belmonte’s research group accomplished this with both human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), human cells from the skin that have been reprogrammed into their pluripotent state.

Kidney development

After generating iPSCs that demonstrated pluripotent properties and were able to differentiate into mesoderm, the embryonic germ cell layer from which the kidneys develop, the Salk Institute team used growth factors known to be essential during the natural development of our kidneys to culture both iPSCs and embryonic stem cells.  The combination of signals from these growth factors, molecules that guide the differentiation of stem cells into specific tissues, committed the cells to become progenitors that exhibit clear characteristics of renal cells in only four days.

The researchers then guided these cells to further differentiate into organ structures similar to those found in the ureteric bud by culturing them with kidney cells from mice. This demonstrated that the mouse cells were able to provide the appropriate developmental cues to allow human stem cells to form three-dimensional structures of the kidney.

Izpisua Belmonte’s team also tested their protocol on iPSCs from a patient clinically diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a genetic disorder characterized by multiple, fluid-filled cysts that can lead to decreased kidney function and kidney failure. They found that their methodology could produce kidney structures from patient-derived iPSCs.

Polycystic kidneys
Polycystic kidneys

Because of the many clinical manifestations of the disease, neither gene- nor antibody-based therapies are realistic approaches for treating PKD. The Salk team’s technique might help circumvent this obstacle and provide a reliable platform for pharmaceutical companies and other investigators studying drug-based therapeutics for PKD and other kidney diseases.

“Our differentiation strategies represent the cornerstone of disease modeling and drug discovery studies,” says lead study author Ignacio Sancho-Martinez, a research associate in Izpisua Belmonte’s laboratory. “Our observations will help guide future studies on the precise cellular implications that PKD might play in the context of kidney development.”