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caption: Chuck Lee, 73, goes in for dialysis three times a week. Each session takes four hours. 
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Chuck Lee, 73, goes in for dialysis three times a week. Each session takes four hours.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

Wearable Artificial Kidney Could Free Up Patients

For more than 600,000 patients living with end-stage kidney disease, dialysis is a lifesaver. But the blood-cleaning process keeps people attached to a large machine for hours multiple times per week.

What if there were a device they could just wear around?

When Chuck Lee goes in for dialysis at the Northwest Kidney Centers in Kirkland, it’s practically an all-day affair. He and his wife, Sandee, have their routine. She sets up a side table with two protein bars and two cups of ice chips. Lee pulls out his essentials to help him pass the time. “I’ve got the iPad, I’ve got a crossword, I’ve got a book.”

Once he’s seated, he gets prepped. A technician checks his temperature, swabs his chest with alcohol, and cleans and tapes the tubes that will go straight into his heart. After 20 minutes, he’s ready for dialysis, which usually takes four hours.

Lee is 73 years old and has had diabetes for four decades. He exercises and watches what he eats. “Before I started dialysis, we’d go on road trips,” Lee said, “and I’d end up in the hospital because being away from home, it’s hard to get your diet where it should be.”

Two years ago Lee’s kidney could no longer filter out the toxins and excess fluids from his body. He started dialysis, a process that needs to be done three times a week. Lee says he and his wife still take road trips, but they’re not as spontaneous as they used to be.

“With dialysis, you can’t do that," he said. "You have to schedule everything.”

Last October Lee got a break. UW researchers have been testing a wearable, artificial kidney. Lee was one of the first patients to try out the device for 24 hours.

During that time, he was able to eat foods that are normally off limits: “Two orders of mac and cheese for dinner … I ate Cheetos all night. I drank V8 juice, I drank orange juice. It was 24-hour party time!”

Lee’s 24-hour test drive was part of a national clinical trial. UW Medicine was one of the participants. And the results are promising enough that the FDA has put the project on fast-track status. Patients aren’t the only ones excited about this recent development.

Dr. Matthew Rivara, a nephrologist at UW Medicine, was one of the investigators who tested the device for safety.

“Over the last couple of decades, there’ve been few technological innovations in treating end-stage kidney disease,” Rivara said. “We think that this type of technology would really allow people to live the lives they want to lead.”

Rivara says the next phase is making improvements for the next trial, including making the device lighter.

Lee would like that. “It was kind of bulky,” he said. “But if I had an opportunity to wear it, I’d be wearing it today because it gives you so much more freedom.”