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Researchers edging closer towards a ‘wearable kidney’

From left: Professor Sotirios Tsaftaris, Professor Grazia De Angelis and Thomas Fabiani.


Researchers at the University of Edinburgh believe they are getting closer to making a wearable haemodialysis machine a reality.

Professor Grazia De Angelis and her team from the university’s School of Engineering have received £180,000 in funding from charity Kidney Research UK to help build an alternative ‘smart’ filtration system, in order to create a miniaturised haemodialysis machine.

Current haemodialysis machines require many litres of ultrapure water to remove toxins from the blood, mimicking kidney function. Developing a process that recycles water could make an artificial ‘wearable kidney’ a reality.

Professor De Angelis, who holds a Personal Chair in Thermodynamics of Materials and Processes, and her School of Engineering Co-Investigators Dr Simone Dimartino and Professor Sotirios Tsaftaris, with the support of PhD student Thomas Fabiani, are developing technology that uses ‘smart filters’ to clean the water so that it can be recycled.

The engineers believe that finding the right combination of filter materials for the purification process could be the final piece of the jigsaw. While there are thousands of potential combinations, this project will utilise computer-based technologies including machine learning (a type of artificial intelligence) to analyse which materials might be most suitable to put in the smart filter membrane before testing them in the laboratory.

The team have been supported since the project’s inception by the Wellcome iTPA team at Edinburgh Innovations, the University’s commercialisation service. The iTPA team provided Professor De Angelis and her Co-Investigators with a tailored package of support including funding guidance and mentorship.

Professor De Angelis said: ” Machine learning accelerates work which would traditionally take years into just a matter of months. By feeding the computer program as much information as possible about the characteristics of the materials and the toxins that it will need to filter, we can get a quite accurate understanding of whether the chosen substance would perform well in a clinical setting. Then, testing in a lab will be used to confirm the information from the AI program by using fluids from real patients, ensuring that we can be certain that the material will be effective when introduced in a clinical trial setting.”

The Edinburgh team’s use of an engineering solution for a biological issue could also have wider patient benefits.

Professor De Angelis continued: ” A healthy kidney is working all the time, while haemodialysis patients only receive treatment three times a week. By the time of their next scheduled treatment not only is their body full of toxins but their blood pressure is very high. Having a device that is portable would allow more frequent dialysis over longer periods of time; this could dramatically improve the dialysis experience, reduce some of the side effects and make it a gentler process. It could also enable patients to have a degree of control over their own treatment, administering it at a time that suits them.”

The team in Edinburgh hope to have completed shortlisting the best materials in the next two years. From there, laboratory research will confirm the most effective material and the team will be ready to test it in a portable device.

Dr Aisling McMahon, executive director of research at Kidney Research UK said: ” This looks like a huge step forward in the development of a miniaturised dialysis machine and we are delighted by the progress made by Grazia and her team. Portability offers dialysis patients the prospect of greater freedom, while the technology itself would help to make dialysis more environmentally friendly by reducing the amount of water needed. We are proud to be funding research which will bring this innovative idea closer to a safe and practical reality for patients.”

Dr Lysimachos Zografos, Wellcome iTPA Programme Lead said: ” Haemodialysis is a life-saving treatment. Developing an artificial kidney compact enough to be wearable would not only make the process easier for those who already have access to dialysis, but also improve access for those who do not, thus addressing a major health inequality. This project is yet another example of combining cutting edge technical expertise and clinical perspective to achieve impact, with the potential to improve quality of life and outcomes for thousands of kidney patients worldwide.”