A novel kidney-building technology could transform replacement therapies

3D bioprinting could change everything.
Derya Ozdemir

There are more than 550,000 dialysis-dependent patients and 100,000 patients waiting for kidney transplants in the United States alone as of 2021. Despite this, only around 20,000 transplants are conducted each year, with almost 5,000 people on waiting lists dying each year without ever receiving a transplant. 

This is the reality of the situation; however, a combination of 3D bioprinting and stem cell-based tissue engineering could turn the tide and provide novel ways to treat chronic kidney disease.

Today, Trestle Biotherapeutics, a new startup, is working on building functional kidney tissue for renal repair and replacement therapy by building on discoveries made by scientists at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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Novel kidney replacement therapies on the horizon

Harvard's Office of Technology Development (OTD) has granted the firm a license to commercialize a suite of stem cell and 3D bioprinting-based kidney regenerative medicine technologies developed at these universities.

This breakthrough technology was developed by a team of researchers in the lab of Jennifer Lewis, the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at SEAS.

"More than a dozen members of my lab contributed to the innovations in tissue engineering that have created this technology platform," explained Lewis, in a press release. "Most recently, we developed a new biomanufacturing method, known as sacrificial writing in functional tissue (SWIFT), that enables the fabrication of vascularized kidney tissues. I’m pleased that Trestle has now launched to translate this robust technology to address the growing need for kidney tissues and organs."

Collaboration between the Lewis Lab and Brigham researchers was critical to the success of this method. The researchers developed an in vitro approach for producing kidney organoids from human pluripotent stem cells.

While these tissue constructs had a substantial number of well-organized nephrons, they lacked a blood-perfusing vascular network., and the researchers were able to overcome this by exposing the organoids to the flow of fluids on bioengineered devices, according to a study published in Nature Methods. The researchers were successful in producing vascularized kidney organoids with improved nephron development in vitro.

“We were able to demonstrate for the first time a more advanced kidney architecture and functionality in human kidney organoids, which is important for creating tissue segments for use in drug testing and disease modeling and, ultimately, in vivo therapeutics," explained Ryuji Morizane, who is now an Assistant Professor at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

This is where the team at Trestle Biotherapeutics comes in. The team will combine these approaches with additional cell and tissue manufacturing solutions, and work toward its goal of developing bioengineered kidney tissue with the ability to assume vital kidney functions as a new standard-of-care option for patients with kidney failure.

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