Researchers with the University of Washington (UW), in collaboration with the Seattle-based organ-on-a-chip company, Nortis, have been developing the "kidney-on-a chip," a laboratory model for understanding how kidney is affected by drugs, toxins and environmental exposures.
The microfluidic chip, about the size of credit cards, contain a central chamber lined with live kidney cells.
A rocket carrying a payload that includes 24 such chips will transport the kidney research project as early as 2018 to the International Space Station.
The project is an attempt to understand how microgravity and other factors worsen kidney health.
"Weightlessness is an accelerator," said Edward J. "Ed" Kelly, associate professor of pharmaceutics at the UW School of Pharmacy and Kidney Research Institute investigator. "In the microgravity environment on the International Space Station, kidney problems are more common. They develop in weeks or months, instead of decades."
With the space medicine project, researchers hope to use these discoveries to design better treatments on Earth for proteinuria, or the presence of protein in the urine that signals possible kidney problems; osteoporosis, namely bone loss; and kidney stones.
"By studying the kidney-on-a-chip after a few weeks in space, we expect to learn more about how osteoporosis, kidney stones and other kidney conditions develop," Kelly said in a news release. "This information may lead to breakthroughs in treatment and prevention."
The kidney chips contain a small sample of live human kidney cells to test how drugs will affect those cells. The system offers a safer, more accurate, less invasive means of testing drugs before they are tried in patients. Importantly, it will reduce the need for animal testing in drug discovery research.
The first phase of the project will be to launch chips that measure the effect of weightlessness on healthy kidney cells, and 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 return them to Earth after several weeks for the UW team to examine.
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 better understanding of the mechanics of basic kidney function could lead to improved treatments for patients.