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VU Inside: Dr. William Fissell’s Artificial Kidney

by | Feb. 12, 2016, 2:35 PM | Want more research news? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter »


Share this on Facebook Watch how Vanderbilt is using a microchip to build a first-ever artificial kidney

Vanderbilt University Medical Center nephrologist and Associate Professor of Medicine Dr. William H. Fissell IV, is making major progress on a first-of-its kind device to free kidney patients from dialysis. He is building an implantable artificial kidney with microchip filters and living kidney cells that will be powered by a patient’s own heart.

We are creating a bio-hybrid device that can mimic a kidney to remove enough waste products, salt and water to keep a patient off dialysis,” said Fissell.

Fissell says the goal is to make it small enough, roughly the size of a soda can, to be implanted inside a patient’s body.


The key to the device is a microchip.

“It’s called silicon nanotechnology. It uses the same processes that were developed by the microelectronics industry for computers,” said Fissell.

The chips are affordable, precise and make ideal filters. Fissell and his team are designing each pore in the filter one by one based on what they want that pore to do. Each device will hold roughly fifteen microchips layered on top of each other.

But the microchips have another essential role beyond filtering.

“They’re also the scaffold in which living kidney cells will rest,” said Fissell.

close-up of microchip held by tweezers

An example of the microchip filter being used inside Fissell's artificial kidney. (Vanderbilt University)

Living kidney cells

Fissell and his team use live kidney cells that will grow on and around the microchip filters. The goal is for these cells to mimic the natural actions of the kidney.

“We can leverage Mother Nature’s 60 million years of research and development and use kidney cells that fortunately for us grow well in the lab dish, and grow them into a bioreactor of living cells that will be the only ‘Santa Claus’ membrane in the world: the only membrane that will know which chemicals have been naughty and which have been nice. Then they can reabsorb the nutrients your body needs and discard the wastes your body desperately wants to get rid of,” said Fissell.

Avoiding organ rejection

Because this bio-hybrid device sits out of reach from the body’s immune response, it is protected from rejection.

“The issue is not one of immune compliance, of matching, like it is with an organ transplant,” said Fissell.

How it works

The device operates naturally with a patient’s blood flow.

“Our challenge is to take blood in a blood vessel and push it through the device. We must transform that unsteady pulsating blood flow in the arteries and move it through an artificial device without clotting or damage.”

Fluid dynamics

And that’s where Vanderbilt biomedical engineer Amanda Buck comes in. Buck is using fluid dynamics to see if there are certain regions in the device that might cause clotting.

“It’s fun to go in and work in a field that I love, fluid mechanics, and get to see it help somebody,” said Buck.

She uses computer models to refine the shape of the channels for the smoothest blood flow. Then they rapidly prototype the new design using 3-D printing and test it to make the blood flow as smoothly as possible.

Amanda sitting at her desk looking at fluid dynamics models on a computer screen

Vanderbilt biomedical engineer Amanda Buck is using fluid dynamics to see if there are certain regions in the device that might cause clotting.

Future human trials

Fissell says he has a long list of dialysis patients eager to join a future human trial. Pilot studies of the silicon filters could start in patients by the end of 2017.

“My patients are absolutely my heroes,” said Fissell. “They come back again and again and they accept a crushing burden of illness because they want to live. And they’re willing to put all of that at risk for the sake of another patient.”

Federal investment

The National Institutes of Health awarded a four-year, $6 million grant to Fissell and his research partner Shuvo Roy from the University of California at San Francisco. The two investigators are longtime collaborators on this research. In 2003, the kidney project attracted its first NIH funding, and in 2012 the Food and Drug Administration selected the project for a fast-track approval program. The work is supported by NIH grant 1U01EB021214-01.

The National Kidney Foundation reports that in 2012, Federal Medicare dollars paid more than $87 billion caring for kidney disease patients (not including prescription medications).

Desperate need

Transplant of a human kidney is the best treatment for kidney failure, but donor kidneys are in short supply. According to the U.S. Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, although more than 100,000 patients in the United States are on the waiting list for a kidney transplant, last year only 17,108 received one.

In all, the National Kidney Foundation says more than 460,000 Americans have end-stage renal disease and every day, 13 people die waiting for a kidney.

Read more about the NIH grant here.

By Amy Wolf

Media Inquiries: Craig Boerner, (615) 322-4747

Media Inquiries:
Amy Wolf, (615) 322-NEWS

  • d00play

    This is fantastic news!! This type of research truly shows how medical technology is best used: in harmony with human nature!

  • Elizabeth Pitzl Wages

    I would love to be used in this study! I’ve been waiting for a Kidney since 2008. I was diagnosed with ckf when I was 24. This would be amazing.

    • Thank you for contacting The Kidney Project.  We appreciate your interest.    We now receive so many inquiries about the project and our plans for clinical trials that it is no longer practical to write individual replies to each inquiry.   Please accept my apologies for a “form letter” response to your individual inquiry.
      We cannot respond to questions about your own medical care.   If you desire assistance managing your kidney disease, please contact Vanderbilt University Medical Center Nephrology Clinic at to schedule an appointment with a kidney doctor. This nephrology clinic will not be able to answer questions about The Kidney Project nor facilitate enrolment in any future human clinical trials of the implantable artificial kidney.
      We anticipate that our first pilot safety trial in human subjects will commence enrollment at the end of 2017.  If you contacted us regarding your eligibility for participation, we have added your contact information to our database and we will send you an email when we know more about specific dates and enrollment criteria.  Please be aware that our first study will likely involve only a few patients and we hope that as time passes there will be many more opportunities to participate.
      If you are interested in potentially participating in the clinical trials, please complete this form to submit your information into our [confidential] database: 
      Please note that while we can’t guarantee participation since this is not an official “waitlist”, we can guarantee that we will contact everyone in our database when we draw nearer to clinical trials, still anticipated to begin by the end of 2017, provided we receive enough funding.
      We have compiled a list of questions submitted to our Facebook page and our answers to these questions.
      You may also use our Facebook page to ask additional questions about the The Kidney Project:
      We are continuing to seek philanthropic funding to augment our federal grants.  Additional money will allow us to hire technicians and programmers to accelerate our progress and meet our timelines.  You can learn about giving to Vanderbilt at:
      and please visit our web site at Vanderbilt:

      • Marwa Anwar

        I make dialysis 3 times wweekly and I am happy for thst great news that will alleviate jy pains. Please I want to participate in your project. I want to be informed about any new arrangements snd when I can ude this microshipmamas I am from Egypt.

    • Dear Ms. Wages, please see info. about the trial in the comments section.

  • Just Me

    Truly hoping that this will be successful and can be perfected in my lifetime. I still have at least 15-20 years before I will need a transplant. I truly don’t want to have to take those anti-rejection drugs which can cause cancer.

  • Dear Ms. Hermenitt, please see info. posted in comments section about the trial.

  • Yockonhawken Alisa N Matt

    This is great news! My grandfather lives on our Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, and has to go to dialysis 3 times a week. I worry about my grandfather because he lives with my grandmother in a rural area where they have to travel long distance to get to the Indian Health Service. Native Americans have a very high number of diabetes this would be a blessing for them <3 – Alisa Yockonhawken -Vanderbilt University

  • bnort

    I am about ready to start dialysis, jow do I sign up for this?

  • Please see information in comments.

  • Please see information on the trial in comments above.

  • Please see information in comments.

  • Please see information comments.

  • John R. Bowers

    I have PKD, would you take out my kidneys or leave them in and how long do you think clinical trials in humans would last before you started putting the kidney in production.

  • Cathy Baldwin

    I live in Canada but this sounds amazing It would be great for me because my anti-bodies are high. I would love to hear back if there is anyway for me to get in on the trials. Thanks

  • shivendra singh

    This is great news for me because my father in law is suffering from kidney disease since last 4 months, and recently they have started a dialysis.
    I am living in India.
    I am waiting for this device.

  • kenza

    OMG , I am so sorry for all what you pass by , my Husband is suffering from kidney disease and we passed by terrible year , between septic shock and dialysis , now he is doing better but still on dialysis , this artificial kidney will change lives of millions of people , I wish you all the best dear .

  • Raul Alamilla

    Hello, I would like to participate in the development of this new technology for hemodialysis patients, hemodialysis patient I am I have 5 years in this treatment as I can get access to treatment. Thank you

  • Raul Alamilla

    Hello, I would like to participate in the development of this new technology for hemodialysis patients, hemodialysis patient I am I have 5 years in this treatment as I can get access to treatment. Thank you

  • This is great news for me. Kidneys of my husband have failed and is on dialysis. Would like to add his name for the trail.


    any updates of clinical trials being conducted in India?I have been following its development since long and when it becomes available commercially its going to be a huge blessing for the patients.

  • Phyllis Murphy

    My Goodness. This is such a great idea. It surely sounds promising.

  • Sivaramakrishnan

    This is a simply great service to the society. Eagerly waiting for the device. Please let us know if it is possible to join the pilot program from India

  • Wilsonroo

    This is amazing, I have a nephew who became ill at the age of 10 with a rare condition. He has had one of the most complicated cases of Good Pastures syndrome the doctors have ever come across and the youngest person to ever be diagnosed with it. One of the many consequences of the syndrome was the loss of his kidneys. He has had one transplant from his uncle and we had assumed we would be able donate in the future if needed. However his syndrome developed markers on our DNA so when his transplant failed prematurely we could not donate to him. Because of how complicated this syndrome has been and how baffled the doctors are we have not had a lot of success. My sister and I are both in the pairs program with him but they think the likely hood of us finding a donor any time soon is very unlikely. he would be a perfect candidate for something like this….especially with all his unique issues that have come with all of this….I hope we can be notified of trials when they start. .

  • joe chamberlin

    ***SOBBING***Please, Please, Please make this available as soon as possible!!! I don’t want to be on dialysis anymore!!! It is sucking the life out of my body! I want to live life to the fullest with my family and go back to work again!!! I want my life to have a purpose. Something I can work toward!!! Please ask me to be apart of the patient trials!!! I live so close to Nashville!!! I am desperate and I want hope for a normal life!!!

  • joe chamberlin

    I just had one of the most painful, cramping dialysis treatments ever and as I sit here crying I am praying to God that an artificial kidney becomes available soon!!! I don’t want to do these treatments anymore….

  • ss

    In Ecuador there is many people who will need this asap.

  • Buslmn

    This is awesome ,, I hope that success is achieved soon
    I am surprised that such a potentially vital discovery is entitled to what appears to be very low level of funding !

  • White Oleander

    WOnderful…how can I involve in this project..I have 3 young brothers who need kidney transplant and they have suffered for 7 years..they are treated 3times weekly.this invention gives them hope to end their painful life..please help

  • Dhananjay Tiwari

    Ya it’s better than an organ transplant I live in India and I am ready for implantation of chip

  • Gary Josey

    I am ready! Dialysis is no fun for patients or their families! I an 74, still in pretty good shape and anxious to get in line!