Groundbreaking 'Wearable' Kidney May Someday Replace Traditional Dialysis

Washington man with end-stage kidney disease used a portable machine.

Researchers in Washington state have taken the first step with experiments on a "wearable" kidney. The device is the first portable and wearable dialysis machine to be used in the U.S., researchers said.

To stay healthy, Lee undergoes dialysis three times a week for four hours at a time.

"I take a lot of stuff there to amuse myself while I’m sitting," he said in a video released by the University of Washington Medical Center. However, during an experimental trial run, Lee was finally able to be mobile during his dialysis.

The device was attached to him for one 24-hour period during his months of treatment. To ensure his safety, he was not allowed to leave the hospital, even though the device is portable, researchers said. However, because the device can run constantly, Lee did get the benefit of being able to eat what he wanted.

Usually, patients undergoing dialysis are unable to eat foods high in phosphorus or potassium because they cannot be cleared out by their impaired kidneys. Eating too much of either of these substances, which can appear in dairy, bananas and numerous other foods, can make the patient sick.

"During the trial I ate whatever felt like eating. I ate Cheetos all night long," Lee says in the video. "It was just like, 'Gosh, this is so great.'"

In total, seven patients participated in the trial, according to the University of Washington.

The preliminary findings were presented Saturday at a meeting of the American Society of Nephrology in San Diego and are expected to be published later this year. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has agreed to fast track the device, according to a statement from the University of Washington, meaning the agency will evaluate the product components quickly so that if approved, patients can get the device more quickly.

Dr. Jonathan Himmelfarb, a University of Washington nephrologist and director of the Kidney Research Institute, worked on the study. He said the medical trial is experimental and just a first step towards hopefully developing a device that people will be able to tote around with them in the future.

"Dialysis is a life-sustaining therapy but there's been a relative lack of significant innovation over a sustained period of time," Himmelfarb said. "It imposes significant burden of treatment in addition to the disease itself."

Himmelfarb said while patients still had to remain in the hospital for the trial, they were very excited to see a therapy that could give them a better quality of life.

"I think it’s fair to say that for everyone involved, they were excited and excited to participate in something that could be ground-breaking," Himmelfarb said.

Dr. Mark Aeder, transplant surgeon and director of surgical quality at University Hospitals Case Medical Center, said the experiment could be the first sign of things to come for dialysis patients.

"I think it's a tremendous advance," Aeder, who was not part of the study, told ABC News. "There’s so many encumbrances that dialysis patients have right now."

While more research needs to be done to show that these portable kidney machines can be safe, functional and helpful, he said he's hopeful that it will open the door to new technology.

"The fact that you’re able to do [dialysis] continuously ... [patients] function much better than those who do it three days a week," Aeder explained, noting that someday these kinds of devices might help curb the need for some kidney transplants.

"Once you’re able to do this, you don’t have problems of organ shortages or problem with immuno-suppression and problems with transplantation," Aeder said.

However, he cautioned that for now this technology is experimental and that transplantation "will beat dialysis every time."