Patients who have lost kidney function to injury or disease must rely on dialysis machines to cleanse their blood of excess fluid, salts, and toxins. This typically requires that they sit, hooked up to a machine in a clinical setting, for 12 to 15 hours every week. This could change soon, however. The device in the picture above looks a bit like some tool belt that Matt Damon might have cooked up as “The Martian,” but in fact it is a completely self-contained portable dialysis machine: an artificial kidney.
The Wearable Artificial Kidney (WAK) received FDA approval for limited trials a year ago. Seven patients at the University of Washington Medical Center underwent treatment using the device, wearing it for 24-hours at a time. The results showed that the process was safe and effective at maintaining appropriate levels of fluid and chemicals in the blood. The trials revealed some technical issues in the system that will require a redesign, but as a proof-of-concept demonstration, the trial was a success. The FDA has approved it for Expedited Access Pathway status, which will help in putting the development of the system on the fast track for eventual approval.
If the system can be refined successfully, it may free patients from being tethered to big machines three times a week. Since the WAK processes the blood around the clock (just as real kidneys do) it could also free dialysis patients from the severe dietary restrictions that they face now. This could be a life-saver and a quality of life boost for patients who need dialysis.