Utrecht University: 3D-prints mimic living kidney tubes

Researchers from Utrecht University have used 3D printing to make tubes that closely mimic living kidney tubes for the first time. This makes it possible to do research into kidney diseases and their treatment. Their results have been published by the scientific journal Biofabrication.

Huge knowledge gaps
About 10% of the world’s population suffers from chronic kidney disease (CKD). This enormous figure makes kidney disease a silent pandemic, according to pharmacology researchers Anne Metje van Genderen and Marta García Valverde of Utrecht University. Yet, there are still huge gaps in our knowledge of the underlying mechanisms of many kidney diseases.

In research on kidney tubes, laboratory animals are used often. We want to provide alternatives.

Marta García Valverde
This is partly because it is difficult to grow kidney cells correctly in the lab that act like they would in the human body. “Until now, cells have been grown on flat surfaces for research. But in a real kidney, they grow forming hollow, twisted tubes,” says Valverde. “That’s why in research on kidney tubes, laboratory animals are used frequently both for modelling diseases and for testing drugs. But animals often poorly represent human responses.”

Kidney tubes made of gelatin
The researchers have now used 3D printing to create models of such kidney tubes from a combination of materials they developed themselves. It is a stable ‘ink’ based on gelatin and alginate. Van Genderen: “It allows you to print well, while at the same time maintaining the structure.” By fine-tuning the combination of ink composition, printing temperature and extrusion speed, the printing material was given optimum viscosity, and channels in the microfibres were able to coil, just like real, living kidney tubes. “The cells can feel the twists and turns of the printed tubes, which makes their action more comparable to that of kidney cells in real kidney tubes,” says Van Genderen.

In our 3D prints of kidney tubes, the cells can feel the twists and turns, which makes their action more comparable to that of kidney cells in real tubes.

Anne Metje van Genderen
Posterprijs voor 3D-prints nierbuisjes
Alternative to laboratory animals
In the future, the printed tubes could contribute to research into some kidney diseases by reducing the number of animals needed for testing. Valverde: “We want to provide alternatives.” Due to the promising nature and novelty of their research, the young researchers have won the Best Poster award at three different conferences in recent months.