Like many other medical procedures and aids, dialysis has been around for a while. For the past 70 decades, it has helped thousands (if not millions) of individuals whose kidneys stopped working properly.
Kidneys can fail due to a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes genetics get in the way and make them stop working, or certain environmental conditions or experiences change the way they work and lead individuals to a kidney failure or a chronic kidney disease. This has happened to humans for as long as they have existed and it will probably keep on happening for as long as we are on earth.
Regardless the reason why kidneys fail, for those whose bodies are not able to filter the waste that runs in the blood, undergoing dialysis procedures becomes necessary.
Nowadays, this is a solution easy to picture. But, has anyone asked how we managed to make it until this point? Years of sacrifice and medical progress had to get in the way for us to be able to know dialysis as it works today.
In this article, Joe Cosgrove will share some historical facts related to dialysis.
Back in the 40’s
Dialysis is a 20th-century invention. It was first invented by Dr. Willem Kolff back in 1943 when this young doctor from the Netherlands decided to construct the first artificial kidney or dialyzer.
The process of developing this kidney was long and took Dr. Kolff more than 10 years. It started when he was a student at the University of Groningen Hospital, in his natal country. Kolff watched how a young man died in a painful and slow way because his kidneys fail and there was nothing to be done. This situation inspired Kolff and moved him to create an artifact that could work as the kidneys.
Kolff read every book available at the University’s library that talked about the kidneys and how the filtered waste from the blood. This is how bumped into an article written in 1913 by a famous pharmacologist named John Abel. In this article, Abel described the hemodialysis process in animals. Abel’s work inspired Kolff to create an artificial kidney.
When Kolff was doing his first experiments, the World War II started, forcing him to work at a Dutch hospital in a remote location once the Nazis overtook the country. This hard conditions never stopped him and he kept on working on the artificial kidney project.
Eventually, he came up with a device made with sausage skin, a washing machine, orange juice cans and other items that would allow him to filter waste from the blood. His invention took place under the Nazi domain and risking his life to make it possible.
By 1943, Kolff’s kidney was finished and ready to be tested. Until 1945, 16 patients were treated unsuccessfully. It wasn’t until that same year that a woman with a uremic coma was successfully treated and regained consciousness.
This is how Kolff’s dialyzer became the first one in history successfully used to treat kidney diseases. It became part of the standard treatment for kidney failure for the next 10 years.
There is hope in the 50’s
In the years to come, Kolff’s invention was improved to treat both acute renal failure and chronic stage renal disease. This was a rough path since most doctors in the 50’s believed that patients with kidney problems couldn’t undergo dialysis for long periods of time and that no man could come up with an artificial kidney that could replace the functions of a real one.
Another challenge that had to be faced back then was the strong damage veins and arteries of patients were suffering. This makes hard for patients to take the treatment for long periods of time.
It wasn’t until Professor Dr. Belding Scribner at the University of Washington came up with the idea of connecting plastic tubes to the dialyzer, and inserting one of these tubes into the patient’s arteries and veins, that would remain open for as long as the treatment lasted. These tubes had the shape of a U that would work as a bypass.
Later in time, this device was improved with a new material called Teflon and operated as a dialysis bypass that allowed patients to be treated for longer periods of time, extending their lives until an organ was available for a transplant.
From the 60’s to today
Dialysis patients became numerous and facilities couldn’t serve all of them. Committees would decide who was going to dialysis and who had to wait. This is how bioethics committees were created and healthcare treatments became fairly available for many individuals who needed them. Portable dialysis machines were created and people could undergo dialysis at their homes.
During the past five decades, dialysis machines have been improved by technology. Kidney medicine has also evolved in a way kidney conditions can be treated with multiple alternatives. Some people use the peritoneal dialysis treatment and some other decide to undergo the hemodialysis one. Regardless the options, it is thanks to doctors like Kolff and Scribner that dialysis treatment became real.