Samira Musah’s lab at Duke University focuses on a prevalent, but understudied problem: kidney disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 15 percent of the U.S. population––approximately 37 million people––have the disease. When the kidneys are operating correctly, they act like a filtering plant for the body, separating toxins from healthy nutrients and disposing of waste. But when kidney function is compromised, those toxins can back up in the system, leading to heart attacks and heart failure, high blood pressure and neurological issues.
Although the issue is incredibly prevalent, as many as nine out of 10 adults with kidney disease are unaware they have any kidney problems, as they exhibit very few, if any, signs or symptoms until kidney function is significantly impaired. This delay often means that patients must go through kidney dialysis, and eventually need a kidney transplant.
Both the prevalence and difficulty in diagnosing kidney disease proved to be an intriguing problem for Musah. During her post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard University, Musah was involved in a project to create various organ-on-chip platforms to model different organs throughout the body. Through this project, she realized that it was especially difficult to create a working model of the human kidney.
“I quickly learned that one of the reasons we couldn’t make great models of kidneys was because we didn’t have access to a reliable source of kidney cells,” says Musah. “You couldn’t get cells from patients, as that would involve a really invasive process, so instead we were collecting cells from kidneys that were either already unhealthy or from organs that were rejected from transplantation.
“It’s tough to use these samples to create healthy kidney models when the kidneys they came from didn’t work normally to begin with,” she says.
Instead, Musah was curious if she could use her background in stem cell biology to create functional kidney cells out of pluripotent stem cells.