Once upon a time, if you had a failing organ, you could pretty much consider it a death sentence. Then along came organ transplants, letting you swap out your defectives for slightly used parts. But doctors are upping the ante. Why go under the knife if you can patch your organs where they sit? The stem cell revolution is upon us, and your kidneys will thank you for it.

Stem cells at harvest time
Stem cells at harvest time

For the first time in the world, doctors in Western India have used stem cells to repair the kidneys of patients suffering from chronic and acute nephritis, an advanced form of kidney disorder. Acute nephritis is pretty nasty stuff. Besides lower back pain, the patient suffers blood and protein in their urine, swelling in the face and limbs, high blood pressure, and the increased risk of kidney failure with each passing day.

At the Institute of Kidney Disease and Research Center (IKDRC), two patients received the direct stem cell treatments. Because of the experimental nature of stem cell therapies, they are only given to individuals with a high risk of kidney failure. Both patients' conditions were highly resistant to drug therapy, and showed high protein counts in their urine. But after the stem cell treatment, these protein counts were reduced by over 90%, a sure sign that the kidney is repairing the damage.

The patients were injected with both marrow-based and embryonic stem cells, delivered to a nearby artery. Once they hit the kidney, they are integrated into the existing tissue to repair damage. Because of the plastic nature of stem cells, they can potentially be used to repair a wide variety of organs. But therapies are still experimental, as stem cell treatment carries the risk of developing a tumor on the organ it was meant to patch. Kidney repair had previously been shown successful in rats, but this is the first successful human test.

Besides repairing organs, stem cells are being used to reduce organ transplant rejection. The IKDCR has already performed 685 kidney transplants using stem cells from fat and bone marrow. Organ transplants require drugs that weaken the immune system so it doesn't reject the organ; stem cells ease that transition so doctors don't have to use so many toxic drugs. But why get a new kidney if you can fix the old one? Stem cells that directly repair organs in the body - say, the heart - will reduce the need for organ transplants in the first place.

It should be noted that these cases aren't part of any official study or trial, as far as we can tell. The therapy is being used as a last-ditch effort to save patients before an impending kidney failure. Before stem cell therapy can be widely used, it needs to be subjected to official, reproducible and peer-reviewed experiments, whether in India, the US, or elsewhere. Once it's proven safe and effective, its use can spread to the general population.

Stem cell therapies aren't perfect, and the danger of tumor is one of the risks that needs to be addressed before they can be widely used. But as we improve our techniques (and invent uncontroversial ways to produce them), expect to see the stem cell option more and more often.  There's promising evidence that disorders from diabetes to blindness can benefit from these therapies, and we're only just beginning to understand their applications. Someday keeping your organs in shape might be just another routine doctor visit, like the dentist or getting a physical. Imagine that.

On a lighter note, the Onion reports on the continuing value of kidney donations by anonymous strangers:

Anonymous Philanthropist Donates 200 Human Kidneys To Hospital