SAN FRANCISCO -- Nearly half a million Americans are currently being kept alive by a machine that makes them virtual captives for hours at a time. Now Bay Area researchers could soon be on the verge of setting them free.
For now, kidney patient David Anderson can't escape the routine -- four hours a day, three days a week hooked up to dialysis, with prospects for a transplant remote.
"There's many patients and not so many kidneys available," Anderson observed.
But soon a revolution being engineered here in the Bay Area could free Anderson and thousands of dialysis patients like him. UCSF researcher Dr. Shuvo Roy and his team are currently testing an implantable artificial kidney designed to filter the blood and perform other kidney functions.
"Namely production of hormones, Vitamin D and help assist in blood pressure control," Roy explained.
The various versions of the device all contain two parts -- a membrane that filters the blood and a bio-reactor that's primed with living kidney cells that interact with the body. In recent tests, the device was able to function in mice without triggering rejection.
"We can keep them alive for a long time,functional" Roy said.
The results are so promising the UCSF team just received a major boost. The National Institutes of Health is giving a multi-million dollar grant to help move the artificial kidney towards human testing.
Experts say the need is urgent. The cost of dialysis per patient is now estimated at $90,000 a year. And UCSF professor Dr. Lynda Frassetto says the costs are actually far higher if you include all the medications kidney patients take to regulate their system.
"So yes, all of those things would get better. When you have normal kidneys you don't take any of those things," Frassetto explained. "That is the goal we're looking for."
If the current trials are successful, Roy hopes to request permission to test the artificial kidney with human patients, possibly in the next two years. In the meantime, his team is working to miniaturize and streamline the device.
"We actually want to get this to patients as soon as possible. So we're going to roll out in stages. So the initial devices may be external and wearable, but our goal is to get an implanted device that gives the patient the ultimate freedom," Roy said.
And if human trials do begin, Anderson said he'd be standing in line. "Absolutely, in a heartbeat. Oh, absolutely, it's the solution in my case."
Written and produced by Tim Didion