Michael J. Cima — a materials science and engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — explained where the human body stores excess fluid during kidney failure and introduced the preliminary design for a sensor that measures this excess fluid at an event hosted by the student-run Kidney Disease Screening and Awareness Program Friday.
“We discovered that there is a method that can quantify the absolute amount of fluid, but we also discovered where that water actually was,” Cima said.
Patients with kidney disease may need to undergo hemodialysis, where a machine filters waste and fluids from the body as healthy kidneys normally would. Physicians currently do not have a precise and non-invasive method for measuring a patient’s fluid levels and determining how much fluid needs to be removed during hemodialysis.
A new bedside nuclear magnetic resonance relaxometer sensor — which Cima and his colleagues designed and are in the process of testing — might be the solution, according to Cima. His goal is to use this device to quantitatively distinguish between fluid-overloaded and healthy patients.
One of the most surprising discoveries from his research, Cima said, was that the excess bodily fluid is mainly stored in the spaces between skeletal muscle cells, instead of underneath the skin.
“I asked a lot of physicians, ‘Where is the excess fluid?,’ and I got all kinds of answers,” Cima said. “Probably the most common response I got was, ‘The excess fluid is underneath the skin.’”
While Cima’s device currently measures fluid underneath the skin, he said he plans to refine his sensor to measure the large quantities of fluid in regions of muscle.
“We discovered something about human physiology that no one knew,” he said. “In the next study, we have to design a sensor. Instead of doing it in that subcutaneous space, we actually just do it in the muscle.”
The talk took place as part of KDSAP’s 2020 Speaker Series. KDSAP’s mission is to raise awareness about kidney disease and provide free kidney screenings to underserved communities, such as cultural centers and homeless shelters. But the coronavirus shutdown has presented an obstacle for the organization, according to Nhu H. Dang ’21, president of Harvard’s KDSAP chapter.
“It actually affected us a lot because we’re a direct public service group, and our main mission is to go out in the community and provide health care. So we can’t really hold our screenings anymore,” Dang said. “In March, it was very chaotic because we had no idea how we were going to continue KDSAP. But I think the motivation to continue it is that there’s evidence that the kidney disease patients have a higher risk of getting COVID.”
Dang added that KDSAP has been making efforts to transition its programming to accommodate remote requirements and to continue conversations about kidney disease. These initiatives include contacting representatives about “policies that disproportionately affect kidney disease patients,” according to Dang.
“Health disparities are just so wide and so relevant to the time that we’re living in,” Dang said. “It’s something that everyone should know about because if it doesn’t affect you, it will affect your neighbor. Everyone can contribute to alleviate health disparities by first educating themselves.”