Kidney Tubular Cells Formed from Stem Cells


A collaborative effort between several research teams has successfully directed stem cells to differentiate into kidney tubular cells. This is a significant advance that could hasten the day when stem cell-based treatments are used to treat kidney failure.

Chronic kidney disease is a major global public health problem. Unfortunately, once patients progress to kidney failure, their treatment options are limited to dialysis and kidney transplantation. Regenerative medicine, whose goal is to rebuild or repair tissues and organs, might offer a promising alternative.

A team of researchers from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (Cambridge, Mass.), Brigham and Women’s Hospital (Boston) and Keio University School of Medicine (Tokyo) that included Albert Lam, M.D., Benjamin Freedman, Ph.D. and Ryuji Morizane, M.D., Ph.D., has been diligently developing strategies for the past five years to develop strategies to direct human pluripotent stem cells (human embryonic stem cells or hESCs and human induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs) to differentiate into kidney cells for the purposes of kidney regeneration.

“Our goal was to develop a simple, efficient and reproducible method of differentiating human pluripotent stem cells into cells of the intermediate mesoderm, the earliest tissue in the developing embryo that is fated to give rise to the kidneys,” said Dr. Lam. Lam also noted that these intermediate mesoderm cells would be the “starting blocks” for deriving more specific kidney cells.

Lam and his collaborators discovered a blend of chemicals which, when added to stem cells in a precise sequence, caused the stem cells to turn off their stem cell-specific genes and activate those genes found in kidney cells. Furthermore, the activation of the kidney-specific genes occurred in the same order that they turn on during embryonic kidney development.

At E10.5, the metanephric mesenchyme (red) comprises a unique subpopulation of the nephrogenic cord (yellow). Expression of the Glial-derived neurotrophic factor (Gdnf) is resticted to the metanephric mesenchyme by the actions of transcriptional activators, secreted factors, and inhibitors. GDNF binds the Ret receptor and promotes the formation of the ureteric bud, an outgrowth from the nephric duct (blue). Ret initially depends upon the Gata3 transcription factor for its expression in the nephric duct. Spry1 acts as an intracellular inhibitor of the Ret signal transduction pathway. BMP4 inhibits GDNF signaling and is in turn inhibited by the Grem1 binding protein. At 11.5, the ureteric bud has branched, forming a T-shaped structure. Each ureteric bud tip is surrounded by a cap of condensed metanephric mesenchyme. Reciprocal signaling between the cap mesenchyme and ureteric bud, as well as signals coming from stromal cells (red), maintain expression of Ret in the bud tips and Gdnf in the cap mesenchyme. Nephrons are derived from cap mesenchyme cells that form pretubular aggregates and then renal vesicles on either side of each ureteric bud tip. Wnt9b and Wnt4 induce nephron formation and are necessary for maintaining ureteric bud branching. The Six2 transcription factor prevents ectopic nephron formation. BMP7 promotes survival of the cap mesenchyme. Not all genes implicated in metanephros formation are shown for clarity (see text for further details). Green arrows indicate the ligand-receptor interaction between GDNF and Ret. Black arrows indicate the epistasis between genes but in most cases it is not known if the interactions are direct. T-shaped symbols indicate inhibitory interactions.
At E10.5, the metanephric mesenchyme (red) comprises a unique subpopulation of the nephrogenic cord (yellow). Expression of the Glial-derived neurotrophic factor (Gdnf) is resticted to the metanephric mesenchyme by the actions of transcriptional activators, secreted factors, and inhibitors. GDNF binds the Ret receptor and promotes the formation of the ureteric bud, an outgrowth from the nephric duct (blue). Ret initially depends upon the Gata3 transcription factor for its expression in the nephric duct. Spry1 acts as an intracellular inhibitor of the Ret signal transduction pathway. BMP4 inhibits GDNF signaling and is in turn inhibited by the Grem1 binding protein. At 11.5, the ureteric bud has branched, forming a T-shaped structure. Each ureteric bud tip is surrounded by a cap of condensed metanephric mesenchyme. Reciprocal signaling between the cap mesenchyme and ureteric bud, as well as signals coming from stromal cells (red), maintain expression of Ret in the bud tips and Gdnf in the cap mesenchyme. Nephrons are derived from cap mesenchyme cells that form pretubular aggregates and then renal vesicles on either side of each ureteric bud tip. Wnt9b and Wnt4 induce nephron formation and are necessary for maintaining ureteric bud branching. The Six2 transcription factor prevents ectopic nephron formation. BMP7 promotes survival of the cap mesenchyme. Not all genes implicated in metanephros formation are shown for clarity (see text for further details). Green arrows indicate the ligand-receptor interaction between GDNF and Ret. Black arrows indicate the epistasis between genes but in most cases it is not known if the interactions are direct. T-shaped symbols indicate inhibitory interactions.

The investigators were able to differentiate both hESCs and human iPSCs into cells that expressed the PAX2 and LHX1 genes, which are two key elements of the intermediate mesoderm; the developmental tissue from which the kidney develops. The iPSCs were derived by reprogramming fibroblasts obtained from adult skin biopsies into pluripotent cells. The differentiated cells expressed multiple genes found in intermediate mesoderm and spontaneously produced tubular structures that expressed those genes found in mature kidney tubules.

The researchers could then differentiate the intermediate mesoderm cells into kidney precursor cells that expressed the SIX2, SALL1 and WT1 genes. These three genes designate an embryonic tissue called the “metanephric cap mesenchyme.” Metanephric cap mesenchyme is a critical tissue for kidney differentiation. During kidney development, the metanephric cap mesenchyme contains a population of progenitor cells that give rise to nearly all of the epithelial cells of the kidney (epithelial cells or cells in a sheet, generate the lion’s share of the tubules of the kidney).

Metanephric cap mesenchyme is is red
Metanephric cap mesenchyme is is red

The cells also continued to behave like kidney cells when transplanted into adult or embryonic mouse kidneys. This gives further hope that these investigators might one day be able to create kidney tissues that could function in a patient and would be fully compatible with the patient’s immune system.

The findings are published online in Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

Australian Researchers Make A Kidney in the Laboratory With Stem Cells


Stem cell researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia have successfully grown a kidney in the laboratory with stem cells. This new breakthrough will almost certainly open the door to improved treatments for patients with kidney disease, and bodes well for the future of organ bioengineering.

Mini-kidney in dish. (Source: University of Queensland)
Mini-kidney in dish. (Source: University of Queensland)

The principal investigator of this research project, Professor Melissa Little, from University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), said that new treatments for kidney disease were urgently needed.

“One in three Australians is at risk of developing chronic kidney disease and the only therapies currently available are kidney transplant and dialysis,” Little said. “Only one in four patients will receive a donated organ, and dialysis is an ongoing and restrictive treatment regime. We need to improve outcomes for patients with this debilitating condition, which costs Australia $1.8 billion a year.”

Little’s research team designed a new step-wise protocol to coax embryonic stem cells to gradually form all the required kidney-specific cell types and to induce them to “self-organize” into a mini-kidney in a dish.  The embryonic stem cell line HES3 was used in this work, which derived by Reubinoff and others in the laboratory of Alan Trounson in 2000.

“During self-organization, different types of cells arrange themselves with respect to each other to create the complex structures that exist within an organ, in this case, the kidney,” Little said. “The fact that such stem cell populations can undergo self-organization in the laboratory bodes well for the future of tissue bioengineering to replace damaged and diseased organs and tissues. It may also act as a powerful tool to identify drug candidates that may be harmful to the kidney before these reach clinical trial.”

Despite the success of this research, Little cautioned that she and other kidney researchers had a great deal of work to do to before this protocol might be ready for human trials. Regardless, it is a very exciting step forward.

The Queensland Minister for Science and Innovation Ian Walker congratulated Little and her co-workers for their advances, and added that biomedical research was crucial in ensuring a healthier future for Queenslanders.

“The work by the IMB research team is an important milestone in developing improved treatments for chronic kidney disease and will ensure those with the condition can continue to live fulfilling and productive lives,” Walker said.

Little’s research team included Dr. Minoru Takasato, Pei Er, Melissa Becroft, Dr. Jessica Vanslambrouck, from IMB, and her collaorators, Professors Andrew Elefanty and Ed Stanley, from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and Monash University.

The research is published in the scientific journal Nature Cell Biology and supported by the Queensland Government, the Australian Research Council, as part of the Stem Cells Australia Strategic Research Initiative, and the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.