KRC home slide

Our mission is to fund the development of a revolutionary
synthetic kidney, derived from stem cells, that will improve
treatment of kidney disease and replace dialysis.

KRC home slide

The synthetic kidney project is a true collaborative effort, involving experts from the USC/UKRO Kidney Research Center and interdisciplinary labs across USC.

KRC home slide


KRC team home slide
KRC team home slide
previous arrow
next arrow

USC’s Synthetic Kidney Project

The beginning of a synthetic kidney created by USC researchers
The beginning of a synthetic kidney. Credit: Dr. Biao Huang/Li Lab at the USC/UKRO Kidney Research Center

A Cutting-Edge Collaboration

Today the team at the USC/UKRO Kidney Research Center is engaged in a major collaboration with the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research as well as other laboratories across USC. Together they are working to push the boundaries of research and build a synthetic kidney to replace normal kidney function in patients. While this project is still in its early stages, the ultimate goal is to generate a substitute, transplantable organ.

The project’s two leading investigators are uniquely positioned to take on this challenge. Andrew McMahon, Ph.D., is one of the world’s leading authorities in stem cell research and commands an encyclopedic knowledge of kidney development. Zhongwei Li, Ph.D., specializes in creating the early building blocks of the kidney through the use of pluripotent stem cells. His lab was the first and remains the only lab that can mass produce kidney stem/progenitor cells quickly and cost-effectively enough to make this project possible.

Zhongwei Li and Andrew McMahon photos and titles

“A breakthrough like the synthetic kidney requires both private dollars and public support. We have the unique opportunity to change the course of medical history and alleviate the terrible suffering of millions of adults and children. This must be something we do in our time, not in the distant future.” – Ken Kleinberg

Dr. Zhongwei Li

Dr. Li’s $2.475 Million NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, Which Supports Unusually Innovative Research from Early Career Investigators, Will Advance His Progress Towards Generating A Synthetic Kidney For Patients In Need Of Transplants

To build a synthetic kidney, Dr. Li will combine natural developmental cues with bioengineering to direct stem cell-like progenitor cells to begin self-assembling in the laboratory. He will then transplant the resulting kidney structure, which will still be in an embryonic-like state, into the abdomen of a recipient. Once transplanted, the synthetic kidney will continue to grow and mature into a functional synthetic kidney.

“By working towards the creation of a synthetic transplantable kidney that can grow and mature into a functional organ in the recipient’s own body, our project aims to address the current shortage of donor kidneys,” said Dr. Li, who is an assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Nephrology and Hypertension and USC/UKRO Kidney Research Center, and of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at USC. “Our long-term goal is to create a revolutionary new treatment strategy for the millions of patients with chronic kidney disease and end-stage renal disease.”

“UKRO and the entire Kidney Research Center team are exceptionally proud of Dr. Li’s recognition by NIH for the innovative work that he and his colleagues throughout the USC infrastructure have accomplished to date in beginning to build a synthetic kidney using human stem cells,” said Kenneth Kleinberg, UKRO President and co-founder. “Our organization is committed to raising the huge amount of capital funding that is required to bring this exciting project to fruition.”

The NIH Director’s Awards honor exceptionally creative scientists proposing unconventional approaches for addressing major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research. The awards are supported by the NIH Common Fund as part of the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, which recognizes scientists who think beyond traditional bounds and pursue trailblazing ideas that advance knowledge and enhance health.