Researchers have hit on what they describe as a highly efficient system for developing kidney tubular cells from human embryonic stem cells, a move that could lead to the use of regenerative medicine rather than dialysis or transplantation in the treatment of kidney cancer.

As Albert Q. Lam, MD, of the Harvard Institutes of Medicine in Boston, and colleagues described in Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, they used a combination of chemicals to change human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) into cells expressing markers of the intermediate mesoderm, the earliest tissue of the developing embryo that will give rise to the kidneys. In a statement from the American Society of Nephrology, Dr. Lam noted that these cells would be the starting blocks for deriving more specific renal cells.  

When administered in a precise order, the chemicals turned of genes found in embryonic stem cells and activated genes found in kidney cells, in the same order that these genes are activated during embryonic kidney development. Once transplanted into embryonic and adult mouse kidneys, the cells continued to behave like kidney cells, suggesting that renal tissue could one day be created that would be functional as well as completely immunocompatible.

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“Our findings demonstrate the effective role of fibroblast growth factor signaling in inducing [intermediate mesoderm] differentiation in hPSCs and establish the most rapid and efficient system whereby hPSCs can be differentiated into cells with features characteristic of kidney lineage cells,” Dr. Lam’s group wrote.