Scots scientists make breakthrough in stem cell research

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A team of Scots scientists based at Edinburgh University have published the results of their ground breaking research which promises to transform the lives of patients suffering from kidney failure.  By manipulating stem cells taken from amniotic fluid, the liquid surrounding the foetus in the womb, the team was able to prompt the cells to grow into miniature kidneys.

The Edinburgh researchers are at the forefront of a global attempt to use stem cells culled from amniotic fluid to create new human kidneys.  Their study will be presented at the Edinburgh Science Festival later this month.  Although the kidneys produced by the Edinburgh team were only a half centimetre in size, about the same size as the kidneys in a foetus, the scientists believe that after transplantation the kidneys will grow inside the body into normal adult sized organs.  

American scientists working in a similar field have succeeded in transplanting foetal kidneys into adult animals where the newly implanted organs grew naturally to adult size.  However the American team experimented with kidneys harvested from other animals.  The Scottish scientists, working at the Institute for Stem Cell Research, part of Edinburgh University’s School of Biological Sciences, were the first in the world to succeed in growing new human kidneys using a mixture of human and animal stem cells.  The work confirms the leading position Scottish scientists and scientific institutions in this important field of research which promises to revolutionise medical science and lead to treatments and therapies undreamt of just a couple of decades ago.

The new procedure promises hope for sufferers from kidney disease, one of the most common illnesses whose treatment requires organ transplantation.  Throughout the UK there are currently around 7,000 patients suffering from kidney failure who are on the waiting list for a transplant.  Currently transplant patients must endure many months, sometimes years, of gruelling and exhausting dialysis treatment until a suitable kidney donor can be found.  

Once the procedure has been tried and tested, it will be possible to collect a sample of amniotic fluid from every birth.  The stem cells in the fluid can then be preserved by the NHS, and should the new infant develop kidney disease in later life the cells could be used to grow a new kidney for transplant.  This would provide a perfect tissue match, making the risk of transplant rejection minimal, and reducing the need for the patient to take anti-rejection medications which often have serious side effects of their own.  

Speaking to the Scotland on Sunday newspaper, biologist Jamie Davies, professor of experimental anatomy at Edinburgh University said: “”We already know that stem cells that come from amniotic fluid are quite good at making kidneys.  At the moment we throw amniotic fluid away when babies are born.  But if we kept it and froze down the stem cells of everybody born in the UK, there would be cells that could build kidneys waiting for them, frozen, in case they ever needed them.

“It wouldn’t be that expensive.  It sounds a bit like science fiction-like, but actually it’s not.  Freezing a few cells is cost-effective compared with the cost of keeping someone on dialysis for years.”

The new treatment would greatly reduce the need for kidneys donated by the deceased, which in turn would decrease the lengthy waiting times many patients face for kidney transplantation.  Every year 400 patients on the waiting list die before a kidney can be found for them.  The NHS would also save a considerable amount of funds, as expensive dialysis treatment would no longer be required for such a large number of patients for lengthy periods of time.  Currently the NHS is facing a growing demand for dialysis and kidney transplants, due to an aging population and a decreasing pool of donors.  

Creating a complex and highly structured organ like a kidney from cells floating around in fluid in a test tube is a difficult challenge.  As yet the team have been unable to grow a full sized adult kidney from purely human stem cells, but are hopeful that further research on the mechanisms by which cells in the body communicate with one another will provide the answer.

The Edinburgh team is hopeful that their research will produce a clinically effective treatment within the next ten years.