UW scientists to launch kidney cells into space to accelerate research process

SEATTLE — About 10 percent of adults in the U.S have some form of kidney disease. Compared to other health conditions like heart disease or neurological illnesses, cures for kidney conditions have lagged.

Now researchers at the University of Washington are planning to launch kidney cells into space to speed up the research process.

Micro-gravity in space acts as an accelerator, so scientists can learn how diseases like osteoporosis or kidney stones develop in weeks instead of months or years it typically takes on earth.

Scientists hope launching their experiment into space will lead to breakthroughs in treatment and prevention.

"The real science goes on in this little pink square,” said Cathy Yeung, research assistant professor in the department of pharmacy at the University of Washington.

Inside the pink squares are tiny blue lines housing a sample of thousands of live human kidney cells.

"We'll be able to look at what happens in young kidneys, in old kidneys, female kidneys, male kidneys,” said Yeung.

The scientists will take kidney chips that are about the size of credit cards and launch them aboard the international space station.

"We're going to be sending up 24 chips,” said Ed Kelly, associate professor at the University of Washington school of pharmacy.

Kelly says they hope to understand how disease develops at the cellular level and how drugs affect those cells.

Yeung says they’re not only going outside the box with this experiment but out of the stratosphere with the hope of finding a breakthrough in an accelerated environment.

The first phase of the project will be to launch chips that measure the effect of weightlessness on healthy kidney cells. The second phase will launch about 18 months later and will measure the effect of weightlessness on diseased kidney cells. Astronauts on the space station will monitor and maintain the chips, then will return them to Earth after several weeks for the UW team to examine.

Jonathan Himmelfarb, director of the Kidney Research Institute, which is a collaboration between Northwest Kidney Centers and UW Medicine, and researchers from the UW School of Pharmacy Ken Thummel, Ed Kelly, and Cathy Yeung, have developed the kidney-on-a-chip system using technology from Nortis.

"Use of the human kidney-on-a chip here on Earth has already taught us a lot about kidney function and kidney diseases,” said Himmelfarb, professor of medicine in the Division of Nephrology at the UW School of Medicine.

“The opportunity to study how physical cues emanating from loss of gravitational forces affect kidney cellular function has the potential to improve the health of people living on Earth as well as prevent medical complications that astronauts experience from weightlessness."

The kidney is a critical organ in drug clearance. When healthy, the body’s two kidneys work together to filter about 110 to 140 liters of blood and produce about 1 to 2 liters of urine every day. Dehydration or diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure impair kidney function and can result in serious medical conditions, including protein in the urine and kidney stones. The kidney also plays a critical role in the body’s use of Vitamin D to maintain strong bones.  A decline in this function could cause a loss of bone health.

A better understanding of the mechanics of basic kidney function could lead to improved treatments for patients fighting kidney conditions. Pharmaceutical scientists from the UW School of Pharmacy have significant knowledge on how drugs affect and are processed by the body. Their work in this area enhances the research done by UW Medicine and Kidney Research Institute clinicians.

The UW School of Pharmacy, UW Medicine and Kidney Research Institute team have partnered with BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado to work with engineers who specialize in developing scientific testing equipment for space launch.

The four-year, $3 million grant was awarded by National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the organization tasked by NASA to manage the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory, will contribute the space flight, time in station, and Space Station crew costs, for an in-kind total of $8 million.

The kidney chips will be launched sometime in mid to late 2018 and will stay aboard the space station for about two weeks.