Last year, researchers at the University of California San Francisco and Vanderbilt University Medical Center announced the development of the world’s first artificial kidney. At that time, they predicted that the device would be ready for use in human patients within two years. Created in conjunction with Home Dialyzors United, the new “bionic” kidney has yet to undergo human clinical trials – and there are a few challenges to be overcome before it will be ready for use in human patients.

One of those challenges is a problem all-too-familiar in a society under a system that prioritizes profits over human life and cannot see beyond next quarter’s P&L statement. At the moment, the project has been delayed because of a lack of funding. Since Big Pharma makes Big Bucks on dialysis and related drug therapies, we should not expect any assistance from that quarter until one company can figure out how to put a lock on the technology and charge exorbitant prices for it. However, there are also technical issues to be overcome.

The bionic kidney is approximately the size of a coffee cup and consists of two components. Blood first passes through a series of silicon membranes, which filter out accumulated toxins. After those waste products go onto the bladder for removal via the patient’s urine, the blood is passed to the other side of the device, which contains transplanted kidney cells that regulate chemical makeup, balancing sodium and potassium levels before it returns to the artery. All of this activity is managed by the use of microchips around which these kidney cells grow – thus enabling the artificial kidney to function like the real thing.

Aside from the fact that donor kidneys are in extremely short supply, one of the overwhelming advantages of the new bionic kidney is the rejection factor – which is zero. Anti-rejection drugs, which can compromise a patient’s immune system, will no longer be required. Nephrologist Dr. Manisha Sahay of the Osmania General Hospital in Hyderabad, India, explains:

In dialysis we can carry out only the filtration, but the supplementation of hormones and vitamin D has to be provided from outside. Similarly, in case of transplants we have to give immune suppressants so that the body does not reject the donated kidney. With the bionic kidney, research so far has shown that it will be able to filter, and aid in hormonal production and also vitamin D production.”

Aside from funding, other issues that have raised concerns about the new technology are back-ups for batteries that power the unit and the risk of infection. The first problem is fairly easy to solve, and will most likely involve the user having to wear a special belt. However, infection is always a risk in any surgical procedure. The challenge will be to minimize that risk as much as possible. Yet another potential risk is preventing blood from clotting as it passes through the device, which could damage the delicate electronics.

If these issues can be overcome and additional funding is made available, patients with kidney disease may soon have real hope of freeing themselves from regular visits to the dialysis clinic.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.