$5.7 million to fund new kidney disease research center

A $5.7 million grant will establish a new center for kidney disease research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Directed by Marc R. Hammerman, M.D., the Chromalloy Professor of Renal Diseases in Medicine, the center will investigate the underlying causes of kidney disease to speed the development of new treatments. The center’s funding comes from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Kidney disease is a devastating illness, and we don’t fully understand its causes,” says Hammerman, who also directs the Division of Renal Diseases and is a staff physician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “The grant will establish core facilities within the renal division to focus scientists’ efforts to discover why kidneys fail.”

Washington University was one of only three institutions to receive funding from NIDDK to establish a new kidney disease research center of this type. “It’s a testimony to the depth and breadth of renal division faculty that NIH chose to base this center at Washington University,” notes Hammerman.

An estimated 19 million Americans have chronic kidney disease, a condition that often develops gradually as the kidneys lose their ability to filter waste out of the bloodstream. Diabetes and high blood pressure are major risk factors, but certain forms of kidney disease run in families. Drugs that lower protein levels in the urine and help protect damaged kidneys from worsening over time are the mainstay treatment.

“But these medications are fairly broad based, and they can’t cure the disease,” Hammerman says. “If we understood the biological basis that underlies different types of kidney disease, we would have a better idea about how to treat these conditions.”

The grant brings together a tour-de-force of 43 basic scientists and clinical researchers at Washington University, and 12 investigators based at several other academic medical centers in the United States and around the world. Their overarching mission will be to gain a better understanding of the way the kidney develops, including the role that particular genes play in the structure and function of the organ. The investigators also hope to determine how abnormalities in genes and their expression increase an individual’s risk of developing kidney disease.

The renal organogenesis group (or core) will focus on transplanting tissues destined to become kidneys from animal embryos into adult animals as a tool to study kidney development and as a possible technique for replacing damaged kidneys in humans. Investigators also will provide embryonic pig tissues destined to become pancreas to researchers interested in studying whether transplanting these cells can be a viable treatment for diabetes. In diabetics, the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas no longer function to control blood sugar levels.

“Since diabetes is a leading cause of end-stage kidney disease here in the United States and around the world, the role that the transplantation of embryonic pancreas may play in a cure for diabetes also is relevant to kidney disease,” Hammerman says.

A second core will concentrate its efforts on developing models of kidney disease in mice and rats and evaluating how particular genes and their expression affect kidney development and function. Such animal models often emulate the same problems that occur in humans with chronic kidney disease.

A third core will work to establish a database of biological samples donated with the consent of patients with kidney disease who are treated at Washington University. The database will contain tissue, blood and DNA samples, which will be made available to researchers studying abnormalities in gene expression that occur in kidney disease. The investigators can then determine whether the same aberrant expression occurs in any animal models of kidney disease. “If we can link particular forms of kidney disease to the malfunction of a particular gene or genes, this gives us a basis for developing new treatments.”

A fourth core will focus on identifying promising scientists and providing start-up support for their projects and on education.

In addition to Hammerman, key investigators in the center include Daniel Brennan, M.D., professor of medicine, Jeffrey Miner, Ph.D., professor of medicine, Aubrey Morrison, M.B.B.S., professor of medicine, Raphael Kopan, Ph.D., professor of molecular biology and pharmacology, Andrey Shaw, M.D., Emil Unanue Professor of pathology and immunology, Sanjay Jain, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine, Helen Liapis M.D. associate professor of pathology and immunology and medicine, Rakesh Nagarajan, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of pathology and immunology, Mark Watson, M.D., Ph.D, associate professor of pathology and immunology, and Mark Schnitzler, Ph.D., associate professor of internal medicine at St. Louis University.

Washington University School of Medicine’s full-time and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.