Kidneys On the Go

A portable dialysis machine could liberate millions

The Two Machines

Gura models his wearable dialysis machine. An ordinary hospital dialysis machine, at left.Landstuhli ; UCLA

For the 1.3 million people who suffer renal failure each year, kidney dialysis is a major undertaking. The lengthy out-patient process requires near-daily trips to the doctor's office to be hooked up for hours to a massive machine; making it difficult to hold a job or have a normal social life. But Victor Gura of UCLA's Geffen School of medicine has patented and tested the holy grail of nephrology: a portable, wearable dialysis machine.

His WAK (Wearable Artificial Kidney) won't win any fashion awards—the bulky 10-pound machine looks like Batman's utility belt on steroids. But it does allow end-stage kidney disease suffers to live semi-normal lives.

Gura claims wearers can shower, walk, work, and even get it on while wearing the WAK. A miniature circulating pump pushes the wearer's blood through a filter and special chemicals that leach impurities from the blood before circulating it back into the body. The filter needs to be replaced only once a week and new chemicals are added daily. The belt, tested on five men and three women last year and given a thumbs up in the British medical journal The Lancet, may also have an advantage over traditional methods since patients do better with daily dialysis instead of the usual three to five times a week.

Last week, another group at the Geffen School of Medicine released its own version of the wearable kidney. Instead of pumping the blood outside the body to be cleansed, the transaction happens on a continual basis inside the peritoneum. This "bloodless" version is designed to function more like a human kidney, and has already been licensed to a Singapore company, though there's no word on when it will be ready for use. For Gura, this spells competition, but it's the type of race that should make his patients most happy.