Revolutionary Nanotech Offers Life-Saving Kidney Solution

Tiny DNA-based nanostructures serve as an added cushion for kidneys, protecting them from acute renal failure or injury.
Shelby Rogers
Illustration showing the diseased kidney on the left and a nano-treated kidney on the right. Shireen Dooling for Arizona State University

A new nanotechnology solution from engineers is giving hope to patients with acute kidney injuries. 

There are over 13.3 million new cases of kidney failure each year, and the outcomes of those diagnosed are rarely positive. Acute kidney injury (AKI) often leads to the quick buildup of wastes and leads to the body struggling to produce urine. The complications arise after just hours or days of the disease. 

Over 1.7 million people die each year due to complications with AKI. However, keeping kidneys healthy can be tricky for modern medicine once their injured. 

An international team of bioengineers developed a preventative measure to stop AKI from ruining another pair of kidneys. Self-assembling nanotechnology would latch onto the kidneys as a form of a protective layer. 

The research was published in a recent edition of the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering

Nano-level 'DNA origami'

The team created triangular, tubular, and rectangular shapes through a method called DNA origami. They used the base pairing of a DNA strand to make new structures that assemble themselves in different parts of the kidneys. 

Arizona State University professor Hao Yan worked with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and researchers from China to develop the solution. Yan said the collaboration was needed to create the unique nanostructures. 

"The interdisciplinary collaboration between nanomedicine and the in-vivo imaging team led by professor Weibo Cai at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the DNA nanotechnology team has led to a novel application -- applying DNA origami nanostructures to treat acute kidney injury," Yan noted. "This represents a new horizon for DNA nanotechnology research."

The team tried out the DNA origami nanostructures (DONs) on both mice as well as human embryonic kidney cells. They found that DONs function as a fast-acting kidney guard. However, the nanotechnology could also reduce and alleviate symptoms of AKI. 

The team tested a variety of DON shapes to see which structures were most effective. They found that the rectangles did particularly well in protecting kidneys from harm; the DONs rivaled most drug therapies for AKI. 

Saving kidneys with new designs in DNA geometry

The study marked the first time that DONs had been used in living organisms and with imaging used alongside the nanotech to track behavior. PET scans gave researchers a real-time method to note how the DONs reacted with the kidneys. 

The researchers found that DONs could help maintain the balance of free radicals and anti-oxidant defenses around the kidneys that prevent the progression of renal disease. The nanostructures 'scavenge' for reactive oxygen species and provide insulation to vulnerable cells. 

"This is an excellent example of team science, with multidisciplinary and multinational collaboration," Cai said. "The four research groups are located in different countries, but they communicate regularly and have synergistic expertise. The three equally-contributing first authors (Dawei Jiang, Zhilei Ge, Hyung-Jun Im) also have very different backgrounds, one in radiolabeling and imaging, one in DNA nanostructures, and the other in clinical nuclear medicine. Together, they drove the project forward."

The successful proof-of-concept study means that researchers could be one step closer in making this solution a viable reality for patients with AKI. 

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