Peter Soler has landed the research project of his dreams. He’s on the front lines of a pioneering effort to build an artificial kidney.

Peter Soler
Peter Soler (photo: Dick Cortén)

Last year, the UC Berkeley doctoral candidate joined a UC San Francisco team developing a small implantable device intended to mimic the functions of the human kidney. If successful, the invention could be a game-changer for two million patients suffering from end-stage renal disease.

“That’s what I want to work on for the rest of my life,” says Soler, who credits his National Science Foundation fellowship with allowing him to seize that vision.The prestigious three-year grant gave Soler the financial and academic flexibility to embark on his innovative study plan bridging the Berkeley and UCSF campuses. The support “isn’t tied to one entity—it’s tied to me,” explains Soler, a chemical engineering student who earned his bachelor’s degree from Florida State University. Soler knows the human toll of kidney disease; his mother is on dialysis for a familial kidney disorder that also afflicted his late grandmother. Growing up in Miami, Soler imagined harnessing science and technology to combat the devastating condition. His essay for graduate school described his desire to create an artificial kidney.

Lured by Berkeley’s academic reputation and an eagerness to sample West Coast living, Soler arrived on campus in 2008. When he heard about the artificial kidney work taking place across the bay, he scrambled to sign on.

“It was much easier than I thought,” he says of the special arrangement he forged to pursue his intercampus project. As a graduate researcher at UCSF, he is designing a bioreactor that uses kidney cells in combination with a nanopore silicon membrane that acts like the kidney’s own tubules. The bioartificial membrane would enable the body to reabsorb important nutrients while blocking out toxins.

Soler expects to graduate within the next two years. He remains committed to pursuing the artificial kidney effort or one like it. “I couldn’t imagine doing any more with my life,” he says.