Kidney organoids can be grown from adult stem cells and are valuable for research in the field of kidney disease. That is the conclusion of the thesis of Frans Schutgens, PhD, researcher in the group of Hans Clevers. Schutgens successfully defended his thesis on November 21, 2017.

The amount of people with kidney damage and failure is increasing, caused by the increasing prevalence of risk factors, such as diabetes and obesity. Transplantation aside, at the moment, there is no other curative option for kidney disease. Therefore, it is important to shed light upon the processes behind kidney function, regeneration and disease through the development of adequate in vitro models.

Miniature organ
One of the models suitable for this application is an organoid – a miniature organ, grown from adult stem cells. The research group of Hans Clevers already developed this culture system for organoids derived from stomach, liver, pancreas and prostate tissue. These cultures proved themselves to be of value for fundamental biomedical research as well as clinical applications, such as patient-specific testing of medication. Schutgens’ PhD research led to the representation of the kidney on this list. 


In his thesis, Schutgens describes the development of the technique behind kidney organoids. That is important, because the mini-organs grown from diseased tissue can be used to test the toxicity and efficacy of new medication. The stem cells used to culture the kidney organoids can be harvested from urine.

Bioartificial kidney
The culture of kidney organoids can be made compatible with the development of the bioartificial kidney – a filter containing living kidney cells, that might someday be able to replace conventional dialysis. However, research on this replacement therapy stagnates because there is no adequate source of kidney cells. In his thesis, Schutgens proves the suitability of kidney organoids for this field of research. Furthermore, by culturing the organoids in a uniform, tubular manner, they resemble the kidney even more. They form leak-free tubes and take on several transport functions.

More research
Can we culture a kidney from urine-derived cells in the nearby future? Schutgens puts his research in perspective – he merely describes the proof of principle. Also, the tissue of which the organoids consist is limited. ‘At the moment, it is only possible to grow tubule epithelium, which does not have the function of the entire kidney’, he explains. ‘In any case, it is better than the resources that we had until now.’ Although more research is still necessary, Schutgens is enthousiastic about the possible applications of his research. ‘It would be interesting to be able to use patient cells to make bioartificial kidneys.’