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Artificial kidney will save millions of lives, scientists say
Ed Timmerman loves his trips to Alaska, but they have become harder and less frequent due to health problems. He lost a kidney to cancer and his other eventually failed. He's been on the transplant list for three years. - photo by Heather Simonsen
Ed Timmerman is hooked up to a portable dialysis machine every night. He is one of the 1.5 to 2 million people worldwide suffering from end-stage renal disease.

"In the middle of the night you'll get these horrendous leg cramps and you've got to get up and stomp around the room," said Timmerman, a father and grandfather. "It's a mental trip knowing you're tethered to that machine."

His trips to Alaska are much harder and less frequent. Staying out late is impossible.

"It's kind of like the bewitching hour Cinderella. You've got to be back or you play havoc the next day," he said.

Timmerman lost a kidney to cancer. His other eventually failed. He's been on the transplant list for three years. Patients can wait for a kidney from 3-8 years, but most die waiting.

"First you have to be put on the wait list which can sometimes take a couple of years on top of that, so some patients are waiting half a decade or a decade for a kidney transplant," said Dr. Jeffrey Campsen, a transplant surgeon at University Hospital in Utah.

Dialysis is a temporary solution and only does 10 percent of the kidney's functions.

"It completely drains them, so almost every other day four hours of their day is gone on dialysis and then they feel miserable afterward," Campsen said. "It keeps them alive, but their quality of life is terrible."

Scientists at the University of California at San Francisco say they have an artificial kidney that works in the lab. It's a small implantable device with super efficient membranes that filter toxins from the blood without pumps or electrical power. That would mean freedom for patients in renal failure.

"What we are trying to do is mimic the natural kidney," said Shuvo Roy, a scientist at UCSF.

The device is the size of a coffee cup. It takes the blood, processes it, and generates a waste fluid like urine, Roy said.

"The device is able to provide the functions of a kidney, and we hope when it's ultimately developed it will be a permanent implant," he said.

Patients also won't need immunosuppressant drugs, causing fewer side effects and less risk of infection, researchers said.

"Can you make something that's plastic that's as good as a human organ?" asked Campsen.

Though questions remain, Campsen said the potential for saving lives is incredible.

"I think over a 10-year period, millions and millions," he said.

It's expected to save lives and improve them.

Timmerman longs to enjoy the simple pleasures of life again. "Stay out late once in a while, go to a movie or something and come home at midnight," he said.

He would also like to visit Alaska the place he loves most, more often. Now he has to haul his portable dialysis machine, the size of a fax machine, with him.

Scientists at UCSF have begun animal testing. If all goes well, the first human implant will be at the end of 2017.