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The “kidney on a chip” is about the size of a credit card. (UW Photo / Alex Levine)

A stack of card-sized gizmos that test the effects of drugs, toxins and weightlessness on human kidney cells is due to take a ride to the International Space Station as early as next year – and researchers at the University of Washington can’t wait.

“Use of the human kidney-on-a-chip here on Earth has already taught us a lot about kidney function and kidney diseases,” Jonathan Himmelfarb, director of the Kidney Research Institute and a professor at the UW School of Medicine, said today in a news release.

“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,” he added.

The “kidney on a chip” is a microfluidic chip about the size of a credit card, with a central chamber that’s lined with live kidney cells.

An experimental payload containing 24 of the chips has been cleared for launch to the space station, under a program managed by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS; and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, or NCATS, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

Four other biomedical projects also won grants, focusing on issues ranging from respiratory infections to cellular aging and bone loss in space.

UW and its partners will receive up to $3 million from NCATS over four years for the Kidney on a Chip in Space Project. CASIS, which manages outside experiments conducted on the space station in its role as a national laboratory, will contribute the delivery costs, time on the station and crew costs for an in-kind total of $8 million.

The chip, which was developed in collaboration with Seattle-based Nortis, serves as a laboratory model for studying kidney function – and dysfunction. Using the chip avoids having to use animals or human subjects for kidney experiments.

Researchers hope the space experiment will show how a variety of factors affect kidney health. The findings could help them design better treatments on Earth for bone loss, kidney stones and a condition known as proteinuria. That condition, which involves having protein in the urine, can serve as an indicator of developing kidney problems.

Why do the experiment in space?

“Weightlessness is an accelerator,” said Ed Kelly, who is an associate professor of pharmaceutics at the UW School of Pharmacy and an investigator at the Kidney Research Institute.

“In the microgravity environment on the International Space Station, kidney problems are more common,” Kelly explained in today’s news release. “They develop in weeks or months, instead of decades. 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. This information may lead to breakthroughs in treatment and prevention.”

The “kidney on a chip” lets researchers study the effects of drugs, toxins and other substances on human kidney cells. (UW Photo / Alex Levine)

The first phase of the experiment will measure the effects of weightlessness on healthy kidney cells. The second phase will look at diseased kidney cells. Astronauts on the space station will monitor and maintain the chips in orbit, and in each case send them back down to Earth after several weeks.

In an email forwarded to GeekWire, CASIS spokesman Patrick O’Neill said the experiment hasn’t yet been put on a manifest for launch, but he noted that 2018 is a “legitimate target” for liftoff.

“While manifesting research is a critical next step, in the near term the importance is focused on proper ground tests that will set the foundation for a successful investigation on the ISS National Lab,” O’Neill said. “Once those next steps are taken, researchers from UW and CASIS will collaborate on the most appropriate launch opportunity.”

Researchers from the UW School of Pharmacy, UW Medicine and the Kidney Research Institute will partner with BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado, and work with engineers who specialize in developing experiments for space launch.

The Kidney Research Institute is a collaboration between Northwest Kidney Centers and UW Medicine. In addition to Kelly, team members from the UW School of Pharmacy include Ken Thummel and Cathy Yeung. 

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