Two papers published in 2011 suggest a way forward on treating – and potentially curing – kidney disease. The two studies were published in the American Society of Nephrology, and demonstrated how kidney cells can be reprogrammed to develop into stem cells, which have the capability of repairing damage done to kidneys in kidney disease. The two studies were conducted half a world away from each other – -one in Australia and one in Guangzhou, China, but their results were similar. In both studies, researchers were able to harvest kidney cells, either from the kidneys or from urine, and reprogrammed them into cells that can develop into specialized kidney cells.
Facts on Stem Cells
Our bodies require many different types of specialized cells – heart cells, muscle cells, bone cells – and within each of those broader areas are even more specialized cells. Generally, once cells have specialized, they cannot be repurposed to serve any other purpose than the one for which they have been programmed. There are, however, some cells in the body that have the capacity to change and become other types of cells. These are called stem cells. There are two types of stem cells – embryonic stem cells, also called pluripotent stem cells, which have the potential to become any other kind of human cell, and adult stem cells, also called multipotent stem cells, which have a limited capacity to become certain other types of cells. Until recently, it was believed that the only way to develop pluripotent stem cells was to start with living cells from a 5- to 8-day old embryo – a collection of about 150 unspecialized cells. More recently, however, scientists have taken adult stem cells and reprogrammed them, reverting them to the same capabilities as pluripotent stem cells. These are called induced pluripotent cells (iPSC).
Stem Cells and Kidney Disease
The scientists in these two studies have both found ways to create iPSCs from kidney cells that have the potential to develop into kidney cells. The eventual goal of the research is to expand the stem cells and inject them back into people who have kidney disease, where they will trigger the body to develop functional kidney tissue to replace damaged cells in the kidneys.
While these therapies will require years of research, there are stem cell therapies in use with kidney patients now that can help improve outcomes for those with kidney disease. These therapies use adipose-derived stem cells – stem cells extracted from the patient’s own fatty tissues. Many people with kidney disease report marked improvement in renal function, as well as better blood sugar control, increased energy and better overall health.