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8 June 2017

Inaugural lecture: ‘Artificial organs are going to replace failing organs’

In the not-too-distant future, artificial organs made of biomaterials and living cells will replace failing human organs. This will render treatment techniques such as renal dialysis unnecessary, and patients will no longer have to wait years for a donor organ. This is the view of Prof. Dimitrios Stamatialis, Professor of (Bio)artificial Organs at the University of Twente.

Together with his research group, Prof. Stamatialis – who will be giving his inaugural lecture as professor of the new chair on Thursday 8 June – is working on the development of a portable artificial kidney. His long-term goal is to develop an implantable artificial kidney containing living kidney cells. He and his team of Twente-based scientists are also developing an artificial pancreas (for diabetes patients) and artificial lungs (for COPD patients), using the body’s own cells.

Failing organs

Throughout the world, the number of patients with failing organs is growing rapidly. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of people with type 2 diabetes has almost quadrupled since 1980. In 2015, three million people died of the lung disease COPD. While the number of patients with renal disease is lower (350,000 to three million), the cost of treatment is enormous. For instance, kidney dialysis in the Netherlands costs 90,000 euros per patient per year.

In most cases, transplantation would be the best option, but there are long waiting times for donor organs. In the Netherlands, patients have to wait an average of four years for a new kidney or pancreas. One complicating factor is that a donor kidney may not be suitable for every patient, another is that a pancreas only becomes available after the death of the donor. The situation is untenable, says Dimitrios Stamatialis. “There is an urgent need for artificial organs capable of supporting or replacing patients’ failing organs.” 

Dialysis machine

Researchers associated with the new (Bio)artificial organs chair (which is part of the University of Twente’s MIRA research institute) are currently working on a compact dialysis machine that would allow kidney patients to dialyse themselves at a time and place of their own choosing. The first clinical trials of this portable device will take place in the foreseeable future. In addition, these Twente-based scientists are working to significantly improve dialysis technology. The current method of dialysis can only remove dissolved waste substances of low molecular weight from the blood. In terms of blood purification, this is only 10% to 15% as effective as a healthy kidney. New filtration technology will also be able to remove higher molecular weight waste substances that are bound to proteins in the blood.  

Artificial pancreas

In the upcoming years, a similar breakthrough for diabetes patients is also expected. The University of Twente’s (Bio)artificial organs chair is working on a pocket-sized artificial pancreas capable of regulating blood glucose levels. That would free patients of the need to inject themselves with insulin several times a day.

In the area of artificial organ development, the University of Twente is working closely with medical centres at home and abroad (Utrecht, Maastricht, Nijmegen, Leiden, Groningen and Ghent). In addition to pure science funding, these lines of research receive financial support from patients’ associations like the Dutch Kidney Foundation, the Lung Foundation Netherlands and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). The private sector, especially the pharmaceutical industry, is lagging behind. “Some companies focus more on short-term profitability rather than on supporting innovative long-term projects”, says Prof. Stamatialis “As a professor, one of my most important tasks is to build bridges to industry and raise awareness of our ideas.” 

Inaugural lecture:

Prof. Stamatialis will deliver his inaugural lecture on Thursday 8 June in the Professor M.P. Breedveld room, in the Waaier building on the University of Twente campus.