Researchers in Edinburgh believe they are a step closer to creating a 'wearable kidney' which could make life easier for dialysis patients. 

Kidney Research UK is funding a team of engineering experts, led by Professor Grazia De Angelis, to build a miniaturised  and portable haemodialysis machine.

Current haemodialysis machines require many litres of ultrapure water to remove toxins from the blood, mimicking kidney function.

Professor De Angelis and her colleagues at Edinburgh University are developing technology that uses ‘smart filters’ to clean the water so that it can be recycled on-the-go. 

Developing a process that recycles water could make an artificial ‘wearable kidney’ a reality.

This would move kidney patients closer to normal function. 

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Professor De Angelis said : “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 Herald: Professor De Angelis holds the Personal Chair in Thermodynamics of Materials and Processes at Edinburgh UniversityProfessor De Angelis holds the Personal Chair in Thermodynamics of Materials and Processes at Edinburgh University (Image: Kidney Research UK)

The team's first task is to identify the optimal combination of filter materials to achieve purification, and are set to use machine learning - a form of artificial intelligence - to analyse which materials might be most suitable to put in the smart filter. 

This can then be tested out in the laboratory.

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.”

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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.

The Herald: The team believe that their device could make the dialysis process 'gentler' with fewer side effects for patientsThe team believe that their device could make the dialysis process 'gentler' with fewer side effects for patients (Image: Kidney Research UK)

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.”

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Dr Lysimachos Zografos, programme lead for Wellcome iTPA - the university's commercialisation service - 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.”