Growing human organs in a laboratory might sound like something straight out of a 1950s science fiction movie, but scientists at Maine Medical Center’s Research Institute have received a $6.8 million federal grant for potentially groundbreaking research that they hope will result in ways to use adult stem cells to grow kidneys.

The lab-grown kidneys could eventually be transplanted into patients whose kidneys have failed, and who might otherwise die while waiting for a donated organ.

The Scarborough-based Research Institute is the lead hospital in a multi-pronged effort to learn how to grow kidney tissue in a laboratory using the National Institutes of Health grant. Assisting with the research is Tufts University in Boston and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

More than 4,000 people in the U.S. died while waiting for kidney transplants in 2014, according to the National Kidney Foundation, with an average wait of 3.6 years for those who receive a donated organ.

Adult stem cells have the potential to become almost any kind of cell, and researchers hope to develop ways to use the cells to treat a range of illnesses. But research is just beginning, and few stem cell therapies have been approved, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

“This is all still very early work. We’re in the Model T stage of making a Lamborghini,” said Dr. Leif Oxburgh, a principal investigator at the Research Institute. “But we know that it’s feasible.”


Oxburgh said the institute will hire at least two scientists to work on the grant project.

If the research proves fruitful, one day doctors might be able to take a tissue sample from a patient, extract the adult stem cells, and then grow a kidney from them, Oxburgh said. The lab-grown kidney would be transplanted into a patient, replacing a failing kidney. Because the kidney would be grown from the patient’s own stem cells, it would be less likely to be rejected by the body, Oxburgh said.

“We’re laying the groundwork toward the ultimate goal of growing a kidney in a lab. That goal is a lot of years away,” Oxburgh said.

Bernard Siegel, founder and executive director of the Genetics Policy Institute, a Florida-based nonprofit stem cell advocacy group, said the grant signals that the NIH believes the research is viable and worth investing in.

“It’s a sizable grant for this purpose,” Siegel said. “This is a big step forward, but the kidney is a very complex organ. If we are able to grow organs in laboratories, it has the potential to alleviate a lot of human suffering.”

Siegel said the pace of stem cell research to grow organs is accelerating, and he believes that using such organs in patients in the next 10 to 20 years is possible.


Sean Roach, a spokesman for the National Kidney Foundation, said the organization supports and funds stem cell research.

“We think this is very promising research and can be a benefit to many patients,” Roach said. “The waiting list is so long.”

About 80,000 people are on the waiting list for a kidney.

Oxburgh said the research will begin almost immediately.

“We’re making great strides, but this is a huge challenge,” he said.

Also Wednesday, Maine Med announced that the NIH renewed a five-year $8 million grant to the Research Institute to study bone marrow fat and how the cells affect other tissue, as part of osteoporosis research.

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