Reimagining Dialysis with Molecular Lego

A contest to “reimagine dialysis” was held by KidneyX, a partnership between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the American Society of Nephrology, and Professor Christian Schafmeister’s molecular building blocks secured him and his team a winning spot in the competition and a $75,000 research grant.

Of the 661,000 Americans who experience kidney failure, more than 450,000 of them receive dialysis. This means trips to the hospital every other day to have their blood pumped through a dialysis machine, a trying process that can take up to 4 hours. Treatment is a necessity, and there are many side effects associated with the procedure from infections to cardiac problems. The average life expectancy for a patient on dialysis is only 5 to 10 years.

“We’re developing this technology that we call ‘molecular Lego.’ It’s this idea of creating building blocks at a molecular level,” said Schafmeister, who is part of CST's Department of Chemistry. “We can create large structures that can become filters, catalysts, sensors, and new therapeutics. It’s a very foundational technology that can build a lot of things.”

By creating a membrane that is one molecule thick which filters out uremic toxins from the blood, while keeping proteins intact, dialysis treatments could be shortened to two hours or even one hour. Further down the line, Schafmeister is looking to combine his work with other groups to create a fully functioning artificial kidney and cut out dialysis all together.

Schafmeister, who has been working on this research for 15 years, says it’s now just a matter of time and funding for his team to find the best way to assemble these membranes.

“I think this technology is going to be the transistor of the 21st century,” says Schafmeister. “We can build things on the molecular level and control their shape. Nobody else can do that. We just have to scale everything up and that’s what we’ve been working on for the past 8 years here at Temple.”

The possibilities for this technology are vast. Molecular Lego technology also has the potential to be used as a decontaminant for large surface areas. It could even be used as a therapeutic drug to treat warfighters exposed to nerve gas or used as a sensor to detect nerve gas.

-Adam Zajac