Australian scientists have grown a kidney in a dish

A mini-kidney forming in a dish from human induced pluripotent stem cells. Image: Minoru Takasato

A tiny human kidney has been grown in a dish by Australian scientists using stem cells.

The breakthrough isn’t the same as growing a replacement organ, yet, the feat has the potential to save billions of dollars and a lot of time in the testing of drugs for humans.

New drugs often fall over when it comes to human testing. With replica organs, grown in the laboratory, this process can be shortened and a drug proved or disproved before human trials are needed.

“It’s exciting science,” Melissa Little, the head of the research team, told Business Insider. “It’s just amazing to get such a complex structure in a dish.”

The kidney isn’t a replacement part but the potential to bioengineer a larger organ is there.

“That really is an amazingly hard task,” she says. “A human kidney is larger than a softball … and we have something in a dish which is 6 mm across.”

Researchers Dr Minoru Takasato and Professor Melissa Little. Image: Murdoch Childrens Research Institute

The achievement goes alongside other research round the world which has seen the creation of mini eyes, brains and stomachs, all still a long way from replacement parts, but the foundations for them.

Little and her team at Murdoch Childrens Research Institute first grew a mini-kidney in a dish in 2013 and were able to form two key cell types.

But they have now been able to grow an organ which forms all the different cell types found normally in the human kidney. This mini-organ is similar to the kidney of an embryo developing foetus.

“The mini-kidney we have been able to grow is very complex and more like the real organ,” says Professor Little.

“This is important for drug testing as we hope they will respond to the drugs as a normal organ might.

“Creating a model kidney containing many different kidney cell types also opens the door for cell therapy and even bioengineering of replacement kidneys. One day this may mean new treatments for patients with kidney failure.”

The new method, which encourages the stem cells to work together to create the structure, means researchers can make a miniature model kidney for anyone using cells from skin or blood.

“Making stem cells from patients with kidney disease, and then growing a mini-kidney that matches the patient, will help us understand that patient’s disease and develop treatments for them,” she says.

This video shows the growing kidney:

The study, announced in the journal Nature, was conducted with the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at The University of Queensland and researchers from the Netherlands.