Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
It’s often said that two is better than one. That’s true whether driving across the country, renovating a kitchen, or looking for a misplaced set of car keys. But a recent study shows this old saying also applies for modeling a kidney disease with two very complementary, cutting-edge technologies: an organoid, a living miniaturized organ grown in a laboratory dish; and an “organ-on-a-chip,” silicon chips specially engineered to mimic the 3D tissue structure and basic biology of a human body organ.
Using this one-two approach at the lab bench, the researchers modeled in just a few weeks different aspects of the fluid-filled cysts that form in polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a common cause of kidney failure. This is impossible to do in real-time in humans for a variety of technical reasons.
These powerful technologies revealed that blood glucose plays a role in causing the cysts. They also showed the cysts form via a different biological mechanism than previously thought. These new leads, if confirmed, offer a whole new way of thinking about PKD cysts, and more exciting, how to prevent or slow the disease in millions of people worldwide.
These latest findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, come from Benjamin Freedman and colleagues at the University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle . While much is known about the genetic causes of PKD, Freedman and team realized there’s much still much to learn about the basics of how cysts form in the kidney’s tiny tubes, or tubules, that help to filter toxins out of the bloodstream.
Each human kidney has millions of tubules, and in people with PKD, some of them expand gradually and abnormally to form sacs of fluid that researchers liken to water balloons. These sacs, or cysts, crowd out healthy tissue, leading over time to reduced kidney function and, in some instances, complete kidney failure.
To understand cyst formation better, Freedman’s team and others have invented methods to grow human kidney organoids, complete with a system of internal tubules. Impressively, organoids made from cells carrying mutations known to cause PKD develop cysts, just as people with these same mutations do. When suspended in fluid, the organoids also develop telltale signs of PKD even more dramatically, showing they are sensitive to changes in their environments.
At any given moment, about a quarter of all the fluids in the body pass through the kidneys, and this constant flow was missing from the organoid. That’s when Freedman and colleagues turned to their other modeling tool: a kidney-on-a-chip.
These more complex 3D models, containing living kidney cells, aim to mimic more fully the kidney and its environment. They also contain a network of microfluidic channels to replicate the natural flow of fluids in a living kidney. Combining PKD organoids with kidney-on-a-chip technology provided the best of both worlds.
Their studies found that exposing PKD organoid-on-a-chip models to a solution including water, glucose, amino acids, and other nutrients caused cysts to expand more quickly than they otherwise would. However, the cysts don’t develop from fluids that the kidneys outwardly secrete, as long thought. The new findings reveal just the opposite. The PKD cysts arise and grow as the kidney tissue works to retain most of the fluids that constantly pass through them.
They also found out why: the cysts were absorbing glucose and taking in water from the fluid passing over them, causing the cysts to expand. Although scientists had known that kidneys absorb glucose, they’d never connected this process to the formation of cysts in PKD.
In further studies, the scientists gave fluorescently labeled glucose to mice with PKD and could see that kidney cysts in the animals also took up glucose. The researchers think that the tubules are taking in fluid in the mice just as they do in the organoids.
Understanding the mechanisms of PKD can point to new ways to treat it. Indeed, the research team showed adding compounds that block the transport of glucose also prevented cyst growth. Freedman notes that glucose transport inhibitors (flozins), a class of oral drugs now used to treat diabetes, are in development for other types of kidney disease. He said the new findings suggest glucose transport inhibitors might have benefits for treating PKD, too.
There’s much more work to do. But the hope is that these new insights into PKD biology will lead to promising ways to prevent or treat this genetic condition that now threatens the lives of far too many loved ones in so many families.
This two-is-better-than-one approach is just an example of the ways in which NIH-supported efforts in tissue chips are evolving to better model human disease. That includes NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Science’s Tissue Chip for Drug Screening program, which is enabling promising new approaches to study human diseases affecting organ systems throughout the body.
 Glucose absorption drives cystogenesis in a human organoid-on-chip model of polycystic kidney disease. Li SR, Gulieva RE, Helms L, Cruz NM, Vincent T, Fu H, Himmelfarb J, Freedman BS. Nat Commun. 2022 Dec 23;13(1):7918.
Polycystic Kidney Disease (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)
Your Kidneys & How They Work (NIDDK)
Freedman Lab (University of Washington, Seattle)
Tissue Chip for Drug Screening (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)
NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Healthy human kidneys filter more than 30 gallons of blood each day on average, efficiently removing extra fluid and harmful toxins from the body. If injured, the kidneys have a remarkable capacity for repair. And, yet, in more than one in seven U.S. adults, including disproportionately people with diabetes and hypertension, the daily wear and tear on these vital organs has passed a “tipping point” toward irreparable damage and the onset of chronic kidney disease (CKD) .
Defining this tipping point has been a major challenge for a variety of technical reasons. But in a study just published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, researchers have discovered a molecular switch involved in controlling the transition from normal tissue repair to incomplete, or permanent, damage . The NIH-supported researchers also suggest a possible drug candidate to control this switch and slow the progression of CKD.
Also impressive is that the team broke through these longstanding technical problems without probing or testing a single person with CKD. They made their discovery using kidney organoids, or miniature human kidneys, that are grown in a lab dish and naturally model the repair process that takes place in our bodies.
The latest findings come from a team led by Ryuji Morizane, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston. The researchers recognized that earlier studies in animal models had identified processes involved in kidney injury and repair. But so far, there’s been limited success in translating those discoveries into clinical advances. That’s because many potential treatments that have appeared safe and effective in animal models have proven to be either damaging to the kidneys or ineffective when studied in humans.
To continue the search, the Morizane lab generated human kidney organoids from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and other sources that include multiple essential renal tissue types. Using their tiny human kidneys, Morizane and colleagues, including first author Navin Gupta, sought the molecules responsible for the transition from complete to incomplete kidney repair.
The team repeatedly exposed kidney organoids to the cancer chemotherapy drug cisplatin, which can damage the kidneys as an unwanted side effect. Afterwards, examining single cells from the organoid, the researchers looked for underlying changes in gene activity associated with the transition from kidney repair to permanent kidney damage.
All told, their studies identified 159 genes in 29 different pathways that activate when kidneys fully repaired themselves. They found that many of those genes, including two called FANCD2 and RAD51, grew less active as kidney damage became irreversible. These genes encode proteins that are known to play a role in a process whereby cells repair broken strands of DNA.
Further study of stored biopsied kidney tissue from people with diabetic kidney disease, the most common cause of kidney failure, corroborated the organoid data tying a loss of FANCD2 activity to incomplete repair of kidney tissue. That’s encouraging because it suggests the new discoveries made in kidney organoids exposed to cisplatin may be relevant to people suffering from various forms of kidney injury.
One of the big advantages of organoid studies is the ability to rapidly screen for promising new drug candidates in the lab. And, indeed, the researchers found that a drug candidate called SCR7 helped to maintain FANCD2 and RAD51 activity in chemotherapy-injured organoids, preventing irreversible damage.
While much more study is needed, the findings suggest a potentially promising new way to prevent the kidneys from reaching their “tipping point” into permanent damage, CKD, and the risk for kidney failure. They also suggest that further studies in kidney organoids may lead to treatments targeting other kidney diseases.
These latest findings also highlight important progress in human tissue engineering, with implications for a wide range of conditions. In addition to making fundamental new biomedical discoveries as this new study has done, one of the great hopes of such efforts, including NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences’ Tissue Chip for Drug Screening, is to improve predictions of whether new drug candidates will be safe or toxic in humans, speeding advances toward the most promising new therapies.
March happens to be National Kidney Month, and it’s especially important to raise awareness because 90 percent of people with CKD don’t even know they have it. So, if you or a loved one is at risk for CKD, be vigilant. Meanwhile, the work continues through studies like this one to find better leads to help control CKD.
 Chronic kidney disease in the United States, 2021. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
 Modeling injury and repair in kidney organoids reveals that homologous recombination governs tubular intrinsic repair. Gupta N, Matsumoto T, Hiratsuka K, Garcia Saiz E, Galichon P, Miyoshi T, Susa K, Tatsumoto N, Yamashita M, Morizane R. Sci Transl Med. 2022 Mar 2;14(634):eabj4772
Chronic Kidney Disease (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)
National Kidney Month 2022 (NIDDK)
Morizane Lab (Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA)
Tissue Chip for Screening (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)
NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
For the 1 to 3 million Americans with type 1 diabetes, the immune system destroys insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas that control the amount of glucose in the bloodstream. As a result, these individuals must monitor their blood glucose often and take replacement doses of insulin to keep it under control. Such constant attention, combined with a strict diet to control sugar intake, is challenging—especially for children.
For some people with type 1 diabetes, there is another option. They can be treated—maybe even cured—with a pancreatic islet cell transplant from an organ donor. These transplanted islet cells, which harbor the needed beta cells, can increase insulin production. But there’s a big catch: there aren’t nearly enough organs to go around, and people who receive a transplant must take lifelong medications to keep their immune system from rejecting the donated organ.
Now, NIH-funded scientists, led by Ronald Evans of the Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA, have devised a possible workaround: human islet-like organoids (HILOs) . These tiny replicas of pancreatic tissue are created in the laboratory, and you can see them above secreting insulin (green) in a lab dish. Remarkably, some of these HILOs have been outfitted with a Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloak to enable them to evade immune attack when transplanted into mice.
Over several years, Doug Melton’s lab at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, has worked steadily to coax induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are made from adult skin or blood cells, to form miniature islet-like cells in a lab dish . My own lab at NIH has also been seeing steady progress in this effort, working with collaborators at the New York Stem Cell Foundation.
Although several years ago researchers could get beta cells to make insulin, they wouldn’t secrete the hormone efficiently when transplanted into a living mouse. About four years ago, the Evans lab found a possible solution by uncovering a genetic switch called ERR-gamma that when flipped, powered up the engineered beta cells to respond continuously to glucose and release insulin .
In the latest study, Evans and his team developed a method to program HILOs in the lab to resemble actual islets. They did it by growing the insulin-producing cells alongside each other in a gelatinous, three-dimensional chamber. There, the cells combined to form organoid structures resembling the shape and contour of the islet cells seen in an actual 3D human pancreas. After they are switched on with a special recipe of growth factors and hormones, these activated HILOs secrete insulin when exposed to glucose. When transplanted into a living mouse, this process appears to operate just like human beta cells work inside a human pancreas.
Another major advance was the invisibility cloak. The Salk team borrowed the idea from cancer immunotherapy and a type of drug called a checkpoint inhibitor. These drugs harness the body’s own immune T cells to attack cancer. They start with the recognition that T cells display a protein on their surface called PD-1. When T cells interact with other cells in the body, PD-1 binds to a protein on the surface of those cells called PD-L1. This protein tells the T cells not to attack. Checkpoint inhibitors work by blocking the interaction of PD-1 and PD-L1, freeing up immune cells to fight cancer.
Reversing this logic for the pancreas, the Salk team engineered HILOs to express PD-L1 on their surface as a sign to the immune system not to attack. The researchers then transplanted these HILOs into diabetic mice that received no immunosuppressive drugs, as would normally be the case to prevent rejection of these human cells. Not only did the transplanted HILOs produce insulin in response to glucose spikes, they spurred no immune response.
So far, HILOs transplants have been used to treat diabetes for more than 50 days in diabetic mice. More research will be needed to see whether the organoids can function for even longer periods of time.
Still, this is exciting news, and provides an excellent example of how advances in one area of science can provide new possibilities for others. In this case, these insights provide fresh hope for a day when children and adults with type 1 diabetes can live long, healthy lives without the need for frequent insulin injections.
 Immune-evasive human islet-like organoids ameliorate diabetes. [published online ahead of print, 2020 Aug 19]. Yoshihara E, O’Connor C, Gasser E, Wei Z, Oh TG, Tseng TW, Wang D, Cayabyab F, Dai Y, Yu RT, Liddle C, Atkins AR, Downes M, Evans RM. Nature. 2020 Aug 19. [Epub ahead of publication]
 Generation of Functional Human Pancreatic β Cells In Vitro. Pagliuca FW, Millman JR, Gürtler M, Segel M, Van Dervort A, Ryu JH, Peterson QP, Greiner D, Melton DA. Cell. 2014 Oct 9;159(2):428-39.
 ERRγ is required for the metabolic maturation of therapeutically functional glucose-responsive β cells. Yoshihara E, Wei Z, Lin CS, Fang S, Ahmadian M, Kida Y, Tseng T, Dai Y, Yu RT, Liddle C, Atkins AR, Downes M, Evans RM. Cell Metab. 2016 Apr 12; 23(4):622-634.
Type 1 Diabetes (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)
Pancreatic Islet Transplantation (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases)
“The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012” for Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, The Nobel Prize news release, October 8, 2012.
Evans Lab (Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA)
NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Cancer Institute
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
You might think nutrient-sensing cells in the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract would have no connection whatsoever to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). But if Diego Bohórquez’s “big idea” is correct, these GI cells, called neuropods, could one day help to provide a direct link into understanding and treating some aspects of autism and other brain disorders.
Bohórquez, a researcher at Duke University, Durham, NC, recently discovered that cells in the intestine, previously known for their hormone-releasing ability, form extensions similar to neurons. He also found that those extensions connect to nerve fibers in the gut, which relay signals to the vagus nerve and onward to the brain. In fact, he found that those signals reach the brain in milliseconds .
Bohórquez has dedicated his lab to studying this direct, high-speed hookup between gut and brain and its impact on nutrient sensing, eating, and other essential behaviors. Now, with support from a 2019 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, he will also explore the potential for treating autism and other brain disorders with drugs that act on the gut.
Bohórquez became interested in autism and its possible link to the gut-brain connection after a chance encounter with Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. Dawson mentioned that autism typically affects multiple organ systems.
With further reading, he discovered that kids with autism frequently cope with GI issues, including bowel inflammation, abdominal pain, constipation, and/or diarrhea . They often also show unusual food-related behaviors, such as being extremely picky eaters. But his curiosity was especially piqued by evidence that certain gut microbes can influence abnormal behaviors in mice that model autism.
With his New Innovator Award, Bohórquez will study neuropods and the gut-brain connection in a mouse model of autism. Using the tools of optogenetics, which make it possible to activate cells with light, he’ll also see whether autism-like symptoms in mice can be altered or alleviated by controlling neuropods in the gut. Those symptoms include anxiety, repetitive behaviors, and lack of interest in interacting with other mice. He’ll also explore changes in the animals’ eating habits.
In another line of study, he will take advantage of intestinal tissue samples collected from people with autism. He’ll use those tissues to grow and then examine miniature intestinal “organoids,” looking for possible evidence that those from people with autism are different from others.
For the millions of people now living with autism, no truly effective drug therapies are available to help to manage the condition and its many behavioral and bodily symptoms. Bohórquez hopes one day to change that with drugs that act safely on the gut. In the meantime, he and his fellow “GASTRONAUTS” look forward to making some important and fascinating discoveries in the relatively uncharted territory where the gut meets the brain.
 A gut-brain neural circuit for nutrient sensory transduction. Kaelberer MM, Buchanan KL, Klein ME, Barth BB, Montoya MM, Shen X, Bohórquez DV. Science. 2018 Sep 21;361(6408).
 Association of maternal report of infant and toddler gastrointestinal symptoms with autism: evidence from a prospective birth cohort. Bresnahan M, Hornig M, Schultz AF, Gunnes N, Hirtz D, Lie KK, Magnus P, Reichborn-Kjennerud T, Roth C, Schjølberg S, Stoltenberg C, Surén P, Susser E, Lipkin WI. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015 May;72(5):466-474.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (National Institute of Mental Health/NIH)
Bohórquez Lab (Duke University, Durham, NC)
Bohórquez Project Information (NIH RePORTER)
NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)
NIH Support: Common Fund; National Institute of Mental Health
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
With advances in induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology, it’s now possible to reprogram adult skin or blood cells to form miniature human organs in a lab dish. While these “organoids” closely mimic the structures of the liver and other vital organs, it’s been tough to get them to represent inflammation, fibrosis, fat accumulation, and many other complex features of disease.
Fatty liver diseases are an increasingly serious health problem. So, I’m pleased to report that, for the first time, researchers have found a reliable way to make organoids that display the hallmarks of those conditions. This “liver in a dish” model will enable the identification and preclinical testing of promising drug targets, helping to accelerate discovery and development of effective new treatments.
Previous methods working with stem cells have yielded liver organoids consisting primarily of epithelial cells, or hepatocytes, which comprise most of the organ. Missing were other key cell types involved in the inflammatory response to fatty liver diseases.
To create a better organoid, the team led by Takanori Takebe, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, focused its effort on patient-derived iPSCs. Takebe and his colleagues devised a special biochemical “recipe” that allowed them to grow liver organoids with sufficient cellular complexity.
As published in Cell Metabolism, the recipe involves a three-step process to coax human iPSCs into forming multi-cellular liver organoids in as little as three weeks. With careful analysis, including of RNA sequencing data, they confirmed that those organoids contained hepatocytes and other supportive cell types. The latter included Kupffer cells, which play a role in inflammation, and stellate cells, the major cell type involved in fibrosis. Fibrosis is the scarring of the liver in response to tissue damage.
Now with a way to make multi-cellular liver organoids, the researchers put them to the test. When exposed to free fatty acids, the organoids gradually accumulated fat in a dose-dependent manner and grew inflamed, which is similar to what happens to people with fatty liver diseases.
The organoids also showed telltale biochemical signatures of fibrosis. Using a sophisticated imaging method called atomic force microscopy (AFM), the researchers found as the fibrosis worsened, they could measure a corresponding increase in an organoid’s stiffness.
Next, as highlighted in the confocal microscope image above, Takebe’s team produced organoids from iPSCs derived from children with a deadly inherited form of fatty liver disease known as Wolman disease. Babies born with this condition lack an enzyme called lysosomal acid lipase (LAL) that breaks down fats, causing them to accumulate dangerously in the liver. Similarly, the miniature liver shown here is loaded with accumulated fat lipids (blue).
That brought researchers to the next big test. Previous studies had shown that LAL deficiency in kids with Wolman disease overactivates another signaling pathway, which could be suppressed by targeting a receptor known as FXR. So, in the new study, the team applied an FXR-targeted compound called FGF19, and it prevented fat accumulation in the liver organoids derived from people with Wolman disease. The organoids treated with FGF19 not only were protected from accumulating fat, but they also survived longer and had reduced stiffening, indicating a reduction in fibrosis.
These findings suggest that FGF19 or perhaps another compound that acts similarly might hold promise for infants with Wolman disease, who often die at a very early age. That’s encouraging news because the only treatment currently available is a costly enzyme replacement therapy. The findings also demonstrate a promising approach to accelerating the search for new treatments for a variety of liver diseases.
Takebe’s team is now investigating this approach for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a common cause of liver failure and the need for a liver transplant. The hope is that studies in organoids will lead to promising new treatments for this liver condition, which affects millions of people around the world.
Ultimately, Takebe suggests it might prove useful to grow liver organoids from individual patients with fatty liver diseases, in order to identify the underlying biological causes and test the response of those patient-specific organoids to available treatments. Such evidence could one day help doctors to select the best available treatment option for each individual patient, and bring greater precision to treating liver disease.
 Modeling steatohepatitis in humans with pluripotent stem cell-derived organoids. Ouchi R, Togo S, Kimura M, Shinozawa T, Koido M, Koike H, Thompson W, Karns RA, Mayhew CN, McGrath PS, McCauley HA, Zhang RR, Lewis K, Hakozaki S, Ferguson A, Saiki N, Yoneyama Y, Takeuchi I, Mabuchi Y, Akazawa C, Yoshikawa HY, Wells JM, Takebe T. Cell Metab. 2019 May 14. pii: S1550-4131(19)30247-5.
Wolman Disease (Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center/NIH)
Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease & NASH (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)
Stem Cell Information (NIH)
Tissue Chip for Drug Screening (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)
Takebe Lab (Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center)
NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases