Understanding the Physics of Kidney Development

Abstract image of tubules repelling each other and shifting around.
The model of tubule packing developed by the Hughes Lab shows the tubules repelling each other and shifting around.

A recent study by Penn Bioengineering researchers sheds new light on the role of physics in kidney development. The kidney uses structures called nephrons and tubules to filter blood and pass urine to the bladder. Nephron number is set at birth and can vary over an order of magnitude (anywhere from 100,000 to over a million nephrons in an individual kidney). While the reasons for this variability remain unclear, low numbers of nephrons predispose patients to hypertension and chronic kidney disease. 

Now, research published in Developmental Cell led by Alex J. Hughes, Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, demonstrates a new physics-driven approach to better visualize and understand how a healthy kidney develops to avoid organizational defects that would impair its function. While previous efforts have typically approached this problem using molecular genetics and mouse models, the Hughes Lab’s physics-based approach could link particular types of defects to this genetic information and possibly highlight new treatments to prevent or fix congenital defects.

During embryonic development, kidney tubules grow and the tips divide to make a branched tree with clusters of nephron stem cells surrounding each branch tip. In order to build more nephrons, the tree needs to grow more branches. To keep the branches from overlapping, the kidney’s surface grows more crowded as the number of branches increase. “At this point, it’s like adding more people to a crowded elevator,” says Louis Prahl, first author of the paper and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Hughes Lab. “The branches need to keep rearranging to accommodate more until organ growth stops.”

To understand this process, Hughes, Prahl and their team investigated branch organization in mouse kidneys as well as using computer models and a 3D printed model of tubules. Their results show that tubules have to actively restructure – essentially divide at narrower angles – to accommodate more tubules. Computer simulations also identified ‘defective’ packing, in which the simulation parameters caused tubules to either overlap or be forced beneath the kidney surface. The team’s experimentation and analysis of published studies of genetic mouse models of kidney disease confirmed that these defects do occur.

This study represents a unique synthesis of different fields to understand congenital kidney disease. Mathematicians have studied geometric packing problems for decades in other contexts, but the structural features of the kidney present new applications for these models. Previous models of kidney branching have approached these problems from the perspective of individual branches or using purely geometric models that don’t account for tissue mechanics. By contrast, The Hughes Lab’s computer model demonstrates the physics of how tubule families interact with each other, allowing them to identify ‘phases’ of kidney organization that either relate to normal kidney development or organizational defects. Their 3D printed model of tubules shows that these effects can occur even when one sets the biology aside.

Hughes has been widely recognized for his research in the understanding of kidney development. This new publication is the first fruit of his 2021 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and he was recently named a 2023 Rising Star by the Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering (CMBE) Special Interest Group. In 2020 he became the first Penn Engineering faculty member to receive the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for his forward-thinking work in the creation of new tools for tissue engineering.

Pediatric nephrologists have long worked to understand the cause of these childhood kidney defects. These efforts are often confounded by a lack of evidence for a single causative mutation. The Hughes Lab’s approach presents a new and different application of the packing problem and could help answer some of these unsolved questions and open doors to prevention of these diseases. Following this study, Hughes and his lab members will continue to explore the physics of kidney tubule packing, looking for interesting connections between packing organization, mechanical stresses between neighboring tubule tips, and nephron formation while attempting to copy these principles to build stem cell derived tissues to replace damaged or diseased kidney tissue. Mechanical forces play an important role in developmental biology and there is much scope for Hughes, Prahl and their colleagues to learn about these properties in relation to the kidney.

Read The developing murine kidney actively negotiates geometric packing conflicts to avoid defects” in Developmental Cell.

Other authors include Bioengineering Ph.D. students and Hughes Lab members John Viola and Jiageng Liu.

This work was supported by NSF CAREER 2047271, NIH MIRA R35GM133380, Predoctoral Training Program in Developmental Biology T32HD083185, and NIH F32 fellowship DK126385.

Alex Hughes Named CMBE Rising Star

A collage of photos: Alex Hughes presenting, the title slide of his presentation with the title "Interpreting geometric rules of early kidney formation for synthetic morphogenesis," and his acknowledgements slides.
Alex J. Hughes presents at the BMES CMBE conference in January 2023. (Image credit: Riccardo Gottardi, Assistant Professor in Pediatrics and Bioengineering)

Alex J. Hughes, Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, was one of thirteen recipients of the 2023 Rising Star Award for Junior Faculty by the Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering (CMBE) Special Interest Group. The Rising Star Award recognizes a CMBE member in their early independent career stage that has made an outstanding impact on the field of cellular and molecular bioengineering. CMBE is a special interest group of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), the premier professional organization of bioengineers.

The Hughes Lab in Penn Bioengineering works to “bring developmental processes that operate in vertebrate embryos and regenerating organs under an engineering control framework” in order to “build better tissues.” Hughes’s research interest is in harnessing the developmental principles of organs, allowing him to design medically relevant scaffolds and machines. In 2020 he became the first Penn Engineering faculty member to receive the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and he was awarded a prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2021. Most recently, Hughes’s work has focused on understanding the development of cells and tissues in the human kidney via the creation of “organoids”: miniscule organ models that can mimic the biochemical and mechanical properties of the developing kidney. Understanding and engineering how the kidney functions could open doors to more successful regenerative medicine strategies to address highly prevalent congenital and adult diseases.

Hughes and his fellow award recipients were recognized at the annual BMES CBME conference in Indian Wells, CA in January 2023.

Read the full list of 2023 CMBE Award Winners.

OCTOPUS, an Optimized Device for Growing Mini-Organs in a Dish

by Devorah Fischler

With OCTOPUS, Dan Huh’s team has significantly advanced the frontiers of organoid research, providing a platform superior to conventional gel droplets. OCTOPUS splits the soft hydrogel culture material into a tentacled geometry. The thin, radial culture chambers sit on a circular disk the size of a U.S. quarter, allowing organoids to advance to an unprecedented degree of maturity.

When it comes to human bodies, there is no such thing as typical. Variation is the rule. In recent years, the biological sciences have increased their focus on exploring the poignant lack of norms between individuals, and medical and pharmaceutical researchers are asking questions about translating insights concerning biological variation into more precise and compassionate care.

What if therapies could be tailored to each patient? What would happen if we could predict an individual body’s response to a drug before trial-and-error treatment? Is it possible to understand the way a person’s disease begins and develops so we can know exactly how to cure it?

Dan Huh, Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, seeks answers to these questions by replicating biological systems outside of the body. These external copies of internal systems promise to boost drug efficacy while providing new levels of knowledge about patient health.

An innovator of organ-on-a-chip technology, or miniature copies of bodily systems stored in plastic devices no larger than a thumb drive, Huh has broadened his attention to engineering mini-organs in a dish using a patient’s own cells.

A recent study published in Nature Methods helmed by Huh introduces OCTOPUS, a device that nurtures organs-in-a-dish to unmatched levels of maturity. The study leaders include Estelle Park, doctoral student in Bioengineering, Tatiana Karakasheva, Associate Director of the Gastrointestinal Epithelium Modeling Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and Kathryn Hamilton, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and Co-Director of the Gastrointestinal Epithelial Modeling Program at CHOP.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Two Penn Bioengineering Professors Receive PCI Innovation Awards

From left to right: Marc Singer, Kirsten Leute, D. Kacy Cullen, Dan Huh, Doug Smith, and Haig Aghajanian

Two Penn Bioengineering Professors have received awards in the 7th Annual Celebration of Innovation from the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI).

Dongeun (Dan) Huh, Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, was named the 2022 Inventor of the Year. D. Kacy Cullen, Associate Professor of Neurosurgery with a secondary appointment in Bioengineering, accepted the Deal of the Year Award on behalf of his company Innervace along with Co-Scientific Founder Douglas H. Smith, Robert A. Groff Professor of Teaching and Research in Neurosurgery in the Perelman School of Medicine.

PCI is interdisciplinary center for technology commercialization and startups in the Penn community. Their 7th Annual Celebration, held on December 6, 2022 at the Singh Center for Nanotechnology, honored Penn researchers and inventors whose achievements were a particular highlight of the fiscal year.

Huh was honored in recognition of his “extraordinary innovations in bioengineering tools.” The Huh Biologically Inspired Engineering Systems Laboratory (BIOLines) Laboratory is a leader in tissue engineering and cell-based smart biomedical devices, particularly in the “lab-on-a-chip” field of devices which can approximate the functioning of organs. Their research has been featured by the National Science Foundation (NSF, video below) and Wired, and has received a competitive Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) grant. Most recently, their “implantation-on-a-chip” technology has been used to better understand early-stage pregnancy. Huh and former lab member Andrei Georgescu (Ph.D. in Bioengineering, 2021) founded the spinoff company Vivodyne to bring this organ-on-a-chip technology to the industry sector. Fast Company included Vivodyne in a list of “most innovative” companies.

Innervace, represented by Cullen and Smith, took home the Deal of the Year award in recognition of its “successful Series A funding.” Innervace is another Penn spinoff which develops “anatomically inspired living scaffolds for brain pathway reconstruction.” Innervace raised up to $40 million in Series A financing to “accelerate a new cell therapy modality for the treatment of neurological disorders.” The Cullen Lab at Penn Medicine combines neuroengineering, regenerative medicine, and the study of neurotrauma to improve understanding of neural injury and develop cutting-edge neural tissue engineering-based treatments to promote regeneration and restore function.

Read the full list of 2022 PCI Award winners here.

Read more stories featuring Dan Huh and D. Kacy Cullen.

‘Organ-on-a-Chip’ Device Provides New Insights into Early-Stage Pregnancy

by Scott Harris

Dan Huh’s BIOLines Lab develops several different kinds of organ-on-a-chip systems, such as this blinking-eye-on-a-chip.

If you’d read about it in a science fiction novel, you might not have believed it. Human organs and organ systems — from lungs to blood vessels to blinking eyes — bio-miniaturized and stored on a plastic chip no larger than a matchbook.

But that’s the breathing, blinking reality at the Biologically Inspired Engineering Systems (BIOLines) Laboratory in the Department of Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, a bona fide pioneer of what is now widely known as “organ-on-a-chip” technology. Proponents hope these devices can one day help scientists around the world learn more about the body’s inner workings and ultimately improve disease prevention and treatment.

“The century-old practice of cell culture is to grow living cells isolated from the human body in hard plastic dishes and keep them bathed in copious amounts of culture media under static conditions, and that is drastically different than the complex, dynamic environment of native tissues in which these cell reside,” said Dan Dongeun Huh, Ph.D., BIOLines’ principal investigator and an associate professor of Bioengineering in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “What makes this organ-on-a-chip technology so unique and powerful is that it enables us to reverse-engineer living human tissues using microengineered devices and mimic their intricate biological interactions and physiological functions in ways that have not been possible using traditional cell culture techniques. This represents a major advance in our ability to model and understand the inner workings of complex physiological systems in the human body.”

Generally speaking, organ-on-a-chip devices are made of clear silicone rubber — the same material used to make contact lenses — and can vary in size and design. Embedded within are microfabricated three-dimensional chambers lined with different human cell types, arranged and propagated to ultimately form a structure complex enough to actually mimic the essential elements of a functioning organ.

With partners at the Perelman School of Medicine, BIOLines recently developed a newer variation of the organ-on-a-chip: one that replicates the interface between maternal tissue and the cells of the placenta at the critical moments in early pregnancy when the embryo is implanting in the uterus. Huh and Penn Medicine physicians led a study using the “implantation-on-a-chip” to observe things that would otherwise have been virtually unobservable.

The study findings appeared this spring in the journal Nature Communications.

Continue reading at Penn Medicine News.

The Penn Center for Precision Engineering for Health Announces First Round of Seed Funding

by Melissa Pappas

CPE4H is one of the focal points of Penn Engineering signature initiative on Engineering Health.

The Penn Center for Precision Engineering for Health (CPE4H) was established late last year to accelerate engineering solutions to significant problems in healthcare. The center is one of the signature initiatives for Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and is supported by a $100 million commitment to hire faculty and support new research on innovative approaches to those problems.

Acting on that commitment, CPE4H solicited proposals during the spring of 2022 for seed grants of $80K per year for two years for research projects that address healthcare challenges in several key areas of strategic importance to Penn: synthetic biology and tissue engineering, diagnosis and drug delivery, and the development of innovative devices. While the primary investigators (PIs) for the proposed projects were required to have a primary faculty appointment within Penn Engineering, teams involving co-PIs and collaborators from other schools were eligible for support. The seed program is expected to continue for the next four years.

“It was a delight to read so many novel and creative proposals,” says Daniel A. Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in Bioengineering and the Inaugural Director of CPE4H. “It was very hard to make the final selection from a pool of such promising projects.”

Judged on technical innovation, potential to attract future resources, and ability to address a significant medical problem, the following research projects were selected to receive funding.

Evolving and Engineering Thermal Control of Mammalian Cells

Led by Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, this project will engineer molecular switches that can be toggled on and off inside mammalian cells at near-physiological temperatures. Successful development of these switches will provide new ways to communicate with cells, an advance that could be used to make safer and more effective cellular therapies.  The project will use directed evolution to generate and find candidate molecular tools with the desired properties. Separately, the research will also develop new technology for manipulating cellular temperature in a rapid and programmable way. Such devices will enhance the speed and sophistication of studies of biological temperature regulation.

A Quantum Sensing Platform for Rapid and Accurate Point-of-Care Detection of Respiratory Viral Infections

Combining microfluidics and quantum photonics, PI Liang Feng, Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, Ritesh Agarwal, Professor in Materials Science Engineering, and Shu Yang, Joseph Bordogna Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, are teaming up with Ping Wang, Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, to design, build and test an ultrasensitive point-of-care detector for respiratory pathogens. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, a generalizable platform for rapid and accurate detection of viral pathogenesis would be extremely important and timely.

Versatile Coacervating Peptides as Carriers and Synthetic Organelles for Cell Engineering

PI Amish Patel, Associate Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Matthew C. Good, Associate Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in the Perelman School of Medicine and in Bioengineering, will design and create small proteins that self-assemble into droplet-like structures known as coacervates, which can then pass through the membranes of biological cells. Upon cellular entry, these protein coacervates can disassemble to deliver cargo that modulates cell behavior or be maintained as synthetic membraneless organelles. The team will design new chemistries that will facilitate passage across cell membranes, and molecular switches to sequester and release protein therapeutics. If successful, this approach could be used to deliver a wide range of macromolecule drugs to cells.

Towards an Artificial Muscle Replacement for Facial Reanimation

Cynthia Sung, Gabel Family Term Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics and Computer Information Science, will lead a research team including Flavia Vitale, Assistant Professor of Neurology and Bioengineering, and Niv Milbar, Assistant Instructor in Surgery in the Perelman School of Medicine. The team will develop and validate an electrically driven actuator to restore basic muscle responses in patients with partial facial paralysis, which can occur after a stroke or injury. The research will combine elements of robotics and biology, and aims to produce a device that can be clinically tested.

“These novel ideas are a great way to kick off the activities of the center,” says Hammer. “We look forward to soliciting other exciting seed proposals over the next several years.”

This article originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

Alexander Buffone Appointed Assistant Professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology

Alexander Buffone, Ph.D.

Penn Bioengineering is proud to congratulate Alexander Buffone, Ph.D. on his appointment as Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology. His appointment began in the Spring of 2022.

Buffone got his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from SUNY Buffalo in Buffalo, NY in 2012, working with advisor Sriram Neelamegham, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Buffone completed previous postdoctoral studies at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center with Joseph T.Y. Lau, Distinguished Professor of Oncology in the department of Cellular and Molecular Biology. Upon coming to Penn in 2015, Buffone has worked in the Hammer Lab under advisor Daniel A. Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in Bioengineering and in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, first as a postdoc and later a research associate. Buffone also spent a year as a Visiting Scholar in the Center for Bioengineering and Tissue Regeneration, directed by Valerie M. Weaver, Professor at the University of California, San Francisco in 2019.

While at Penn, Buffone was a co-investigator on an R21 grant through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which supported his time as a research associate. Buffone is excited to start his own laboratory where he plans to train a diverse set of trainees.

Buffone’s research area lies at the intersection of genetic engineering, immunology, and glycobiology and addresses how to specifically tailor the trafficking and response of immune cells to inflammation and various diseases. The work seeks to identify and subsequently modify critical cell surface and intracellular signaling molecules governing the recruitment of various blood cell types to distal sites. The ultimate goal of his research is to tailor and personalize the innate and adaptive immune response to specific diseases on demand.

“None of this would have been possible without the unwavering support of all of my mentors, past and present, and most especially Dan Hammer,” Buffone says. “His support in helping me transition into an independent scientist and his understanding of my outside responsibilities as a dad with two young children is truly the reason why I am standing here today. It’s a testament to Dan as both a person and a mentor.”

Penn Bioengineering Alumna Cynthia Reinhart-King is President Elect of BMES

Dr. Cynthia Reinhart-King, Engineering, BME, Photo by Joe Howell

Penn Bioengineering alumna Cynthia Reinhart-King, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering and Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt University, was elected the next President of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), the largest professional society for biomedical engineers. Her term as president-elect started at the annual BMES meeting in October 2021.

Reinhart-King graduated with her Ph.D. from Penn Bioengineering in 2006. She studied in the lab of Daniel Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering as a Whitaker Fellow and went on to complete postdoctoral training as an Individual NIH NRSA postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester. Prior to joining Vanderbilt, she was on the faculty of Cornell University and received tenure in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. The Reinhart-King lab at Vanderbilt “uses tissue engineering, microfabrication, novel biomaterials, model organisms, and tools from cell and molecular biology to study the effects of mechanical and chemical changes in tissues during disease progression.”

Reinhart-King gave the 2019 Grace Hopper Distinguished Lecture, sponsored by the Department of Bioengineering. This lecture series recognizes successful women in engineering and seeks to inspire students to achieve at the highest level. She is a recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including the Rita Schaffer Young Investigator Award in 2010, an NSF CAREER Award, and the Mid-Career Award in 2018 from BMES.

In a Q&A on the BMES Blog, Reinhart-King said that:

“BMES is facing many challenges, like many societies, as we deal with the hurdles associated with COVID-19 and inequities across society. We must continue to address those challenges. However, we are also in a terrific window of having robust membership, many members who are eager to get involved with the society’s activities, and a national lens on science and scientists. One of my goals will be to identify and create opportunities for our members to help build the reach of the society and its member.”

Read “Cynthia Reinhart-King is president-elect of the Biomedical Engineering Society” in Vanderbilt News.

Penn Engineering’s Latest ‘Organ-On-a-Chip’ is a New Way to Study Cancer-related Muscle Wasting

by Melissa Pappas

Bioengineering’s Dan Huh and colleagues have developed a number of organ-on-a-chip devices to simulate how human cells grow and perform in their natural environments. Their latest is a muscle-on-a-chip, which carefully captures the directionality of muscle cells as they anchor themselves within the body. See the full infographic at the bottom of this story. (Illustration by Melissa Pappas).

Studying drug effects on human muscles just got easier thanks to a new “muscle-on-a-chip,” developed by a team of researchers from Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and Inha University in Incheon, Korea.

Muscle tissue is essential to almost all of the body’s organs, however, diseases such as cancer and diabetes can cause muscle tissue degradation or “wasting,” severely decreasing organ function and quality of life. Traditional drug testing for treatment and prevention of muscle wasting is limited through animal studies, which do not capture the complexity of the human physiology, and human clinical trials, which are too time consuming to help current patients.

An “organ-on-a-chip” approach can solve these problems. By growing real human cells within microfabricated devices, an organ-on-a-chip provides a way for scientists to study replicas of human organs outside of the body.

Using their new muscle-on-a-chip, the researchers can safely run muscle injury experiments on human tissue, test targeted cancer drugs and supplements, and determine the best preventative treatment for muscle wasting.

organ-on-a-chip
Dan Huh, Ph.D.

This research was published in Science Advances and was led by Dan Huh, Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, and Mark Mondrinos, then a postdoctoral researcher in Huh’s lab and currently an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Tulane University. Their co-authors included Cassidy Blundell and Jeongyun Seo, former Ph.D. students in the Huh lab, Alex Yi and Matthew Osborn, then research technicians in the Huh lab, and Vivek Shenoy, Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Lab members Farid Alisafaei and Hossein Ahmadzadeh also contributed to the research. The team collaborated with Insu Lee and professors Sun Min Kim and Tae-Joon Jeon of Inha University.

In order to conduct meaningful drug testing with their devices, the research team needed to ensure that cultured structures within the muscle-on-a-chip were as close to the real human tissue as possible. Critically, they needed to capture muscle’s “anisotropic,” or directionally aligned, shape.

“In the human body, muscle cells adhere to specific anchor points due to their location next to ligament tissue, bones or other muscle tissue,” Huh says. “What’s interesting is that this physical constraint at the boundary of the tissue is what sculpts the shape of muscle. During embryonic development, muscle cells pull at these anchors and stretch in the spaces in between, similar to a tent being held up by its poles and anchored down by the stakes. As a result, the muscle tissue extends linearly and aligns between the anchoring points, acquiring its characteristic shape.”

The team mimicked this design using a microfabricated chip that enabled similar anchoring of human muscle cells, sculpting three-dimensional tissue constructs that resembled real human skeletal muscle.

The the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

2021 CAREER Award recipient: Alex Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering

by Melissa Pappas

Alex Hughes (illustration by Melissa Pappas)

The National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award is given to early-career researchers in order to kickstart their careers in innovative and pivotal research while giving back to the community in the form of outreach and education. Alex Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering and in Cell and Developmental Biology, is among the Penn Engineering faculty members who have received the CAREER Award this year.

Hughes plans to use the funds to develop a human kidney model to better understand how the development of cells and tissues influences congenital diseases of the kidney and urinary tract.

The model, known as an “organoid,” is a lab-grown piece of human kidney tissue on the scale of millimeters to centimeters, grown from cultured human cells.

“We want to create a human organoid structure that has nephrons, the filters of the kidney, that are properly ‘plumbed’ or connected to the ureteric epithelium, the tubules that direct urine towards the bladder,” says Hughes. “To achieve that, we have to first understand how to guide the formation of the ureteric tubule networks, and then stimulate early nephrons to fuse with those networks. In the end, the structures will look like ‘kidney subunits’ that could potentially be injected and fused to existing kidneys.”

The field of bioengineering has touched on questions similar to those posed by Hughes, focusing on drug testing and disease treatment. Some of these questions can be answered with the “organ-on-a-chip” approach, while others need an even more realistic model of the organ. The fundamentals of kidney development and questions such as “how does the development of nephrons affect congenital kidney and urinary tract anomalies?” require an organoid in an environment as similar to the human body as possible.

“We decided to start with the kidney for a few reasons,” says Hughes. “First, because its development is a beautiful process; the tubule growth is similar to that of a tree, splitting into branches. It’s a complex yet understudied organ that hosts incredibly common developmental defects.

“Second,” he says, “the question of how things form and develop in the kidney has major medical implications, and we cannot answer that with the ‘organ-on-a-chip’ approach. We need to create a model that mimics the chemical and mechanical properties of the kidney to watch these tissues develop.”

The fundamental development of the kidney can also answer other questions related to efficiency and the evolution of this biological filtration system.

“We have the tendency to believe that systems in the human body are the most evolved and thus the most efficient, but that is not necessarily true,” says Hughes. “If we can better understand the development of a system, such as the kidney, then we may be able to make the system better.”

Hughes’ kidney research will lay the foundation for broader goals within regenerative medicine and organ transplantation.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.