By Wendy Sarubbi | September 8, 2015 2:41 pm

A College of Medicine research team is investigating whether pig kidneys can be used to grow new human organs for patients suffering from kidney failure or diabetes.

The team is led by Dr. Edward Ross, Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine and interim associate dean for clinical affairs, and Dr. Bradley Willenberg, assistant scientist, Department of Internal Medicine.

Because pig kidneys are so biologically similar to those of a human, the researchers wish to use the overall architecture of the pig kidney to create a new organ with human cells. To do so, they have carefully stripped away all the pig cells, leaving behind a complex kidney-shaped biomaterial scaffold which directs the growth of new human cells, ideally derived from the sick patient. The team has shown early results in using this scaffolding to grow stem cells, a necessary first step in developing the process that may one day be used to regrow whole organs with these scaffolds.

“As you know there are people who need organ transplants such as liver and kidney but these organs are in short supply and the demand for them is high,” said Dr. Willenberg. “So we need a way of creating transplantable organs for patients in need.”

The UCF scientists’ work is unique because not only can the pig kidney scaffold be used to grow human kidneys, but the vascular network and ducts of the kidney also make this organ scaffold an ideal platform for growing insulin-producing cells of the pancreas for implantation into diabetics. This novel hybrid-organ idea repurposes the unique vascular network of the kidney scaffold to provide an adequate blood supply for the pancreatic cells growing inside. Moreover, the ducts of the kidney scaffold would allow for the release of insulin directly into the patient’s bloodstream, and the biochemical nature of the scaffold itself may help to curtail immune rejection. If this kidney-turned-pancreas works, it could potentially cure Type 1 diabetes, which occurs when a patient’s immune system destroys their own insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.

“One of the most unique aspects of what we’re doing is the repurposing concept, starting off with a kidney scaffold and trying to create another organ, say another pancreas,” Dr. Willenberg said. “That is unique to our lab at UCF.”

As a clinician, Dr. Ross’s specialty is kidney disease and diabetes often causes kidney damage, ultimately requiring transplantation or dialysis. He said the idea of creating artificial organs through a variety of systems, including 3D printing, is gaining traction in the research community. “But the challenge for a kidney is that it’s so intricate,” he said. “The technology is not there to make a synthetic scaffold for such a complex architecture. So we thought at least for now to we could use a real animal organ, take the cells out and in essence create an extremely elegant blueprint. Then we could put cells into the structure and grow it into a functioning organ. We started with kidney, one of the most complex organs, and thought the lessons we learned could also be applied to growing insulin-producing cells for diabetic patients.”

The researchers began their work at the University of Florida and transferred their efforts to UCF when Drs. Ross and Willenberg joined the UCF College of Medicine about a year ago. A paper detailing their kidney-to-pancreas work was recently published in the journal Organogenesis.

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