Designing tomorrow’s portable, artificial kidney

A portable, artificial kidney, the size of a big shoebox. With a unique, superefficient dialysis method and a regular power plug.

Tom Oostrom, currently director of the Dutch Kidney Foundation, first learned about the possibility of an implantable artificial kidney in 2005. It sounded incredibly futuristic. Since then, he and his team have been working on bringing that future closer by designing a portable, artificial kidney. Standardization has been instrumental in getting this innovative product closer to the market.

Miniature size, maximum efficiency

Oostrom: “We partner with two technological companies, one in Switzerland and the other in Singapore. The Swiss company miniaturizes the dialysis machine, almost to the size of a big shoebox.  Unlike the regular, full-size dialysis machine, it doesn’t require connection to a water supply, special grounding or high-power electricity.”

“The Singaporean company knows everything about so-called ‘sorbents’; materials that separate  waste from dialysis liquid, making it reusable; so that a single treatment doesn’t require 100 but just 7 litres!”

More than technology

Oostrom stresses that the project is about more than technology. “We’re bringing innovations to healthcare and the society at large”, Oostrom says. “With patients and doctors, we’re talking about what the portable artificial kidney will mean for them, and how to inform them about the new possibilities. We’re working with insurance companies to make sure everything meets their requirements so that they’re able to cover the artificial kidney as soon as it’s ready.”

 

“Insurers demand great patient support, which has improved the quality of the whole project. For example, what happens if the mobile data network is somehow not working? We asked Dutch telecom provider KPN to help us define standards. Everything, down to the last detail, must be properly arranged. Including a working connection, wherever, whenever!”

Get involved with standards early

“From the start we were in contact with TNO, the largest research institute in  the Netherlands”, says Oostrom. “TNO helped us write the specifications of the portable artificial kidney. We learned about standardization committees through them and later through IMEC, a large international research center in the field of nanoelectronics and digital technologies. Now I see the importance of thinking about standardization in the early stages of innovation - the longer you wait, the more difficult it gets. In fact, that’s exactly what happened in our project...”

On being disruptive

“The current standards for dialysis machines didn’t accommodate our new sorbent technology or the ungrounded, flat 2-pole power plug we wanted to use. But those are hugely important to our product. These technologies enable patients to use the portable artificial kidney everywhere, without a need for special plumbing or special grounded wall socket mains outlets. So, for instance in any normal hotel room, or with an emergency power supply in disaster areas.”

“IMEC, part of the development team, worked with the international standardization committee and made sure our ideas were included in the standard for dialysis machines, which lets the artificial kidney be used by many people, in many countries.”

 

Oostrom says: “Standards usually don’t include disruptive technologies - but disruptive technologies inform the standards of the future.”

“Society comes to a standstill without standardization. It’s a prerequisite to let innovations reach their full potential. ”

Tom Oostrom, DUTCH KIDNEY FOUNDATION, Bussum, the Netherlands

Innovation, powered by standards

“Society comes to a standstill without standardization. It’s a prerequisite to let innovations reach their full potential. For any project, and especially on medical technology, I believe it’s crucial to think about standardization from the very start. Because it means thinking about the market, your target audience and the stakeholders you need to involve.”

Towards the market

The next step is bringing the portable, artificial kidney to the market. Oostrom: “We can’t do that on our own, we need to work with experienced, commercial companies. And we must fulfil good clinical practice and must demonstrate a very high safety level. That means many strict tests, so it might take another couple of years before the artificial kidney is available on the market. It’s difficult to explain this to patients who already want to use the product now, but the truth is... innovation in medical technology takes time.”

 

For Oostrom, there’s a lot more to the project than technology or medicine. “It’s about giving back freedom to patients. It’s our responsibility to make sure that our innovations reach, and benefit, as patients as possible. Contributing to writing international standards helps us meet that responsibility every step of the way.”

Further readings

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