In the future, stem-cell-based therapies could offer new approaches to treat kidney disease and reduce the incidence of ESRD (end-stage renal disease), but, as yet, research in this area is only being conducted in rodents and it is not clear whether or when it could be applied to human patients. Drug therapies, on the other hand, have been very effective at delaying the progression of kidney disease, but, for various reasons, current drug regimes are not suitable for all patients. A greater understanding of the molecular mechanisms that underlie disease progression in chronic kidney disease could help to identify novel drug targets. However, progress in this area is currently hindered due to the lack of appropriate in vitro culture systems for important renal cell types, such as proximal tubule cells and podocytes. This problem could be overcome if it were possible to direct the differentiation of kidney stem cells to renal cell types in vitro. In the present review, we highlight the potential of surface gradients of small chemical functional groups to direct the differentiation of kidney stem cells.

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