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New research grants awarded

21 January 2022

After another difficult year, we are thrilled to have been able to still award grants for new research. In the most recent grants rounds, we have funded four new fellowships, two PhD studentships, three projects and two innovation projects.  

Here are some short summaries of this new research. We look forward to keeping you updated with their progress! 

Hands in white gloves testing liquid

Fellowships

Our fellowships are given to outstanding early career researchers. These researchers have the potential to become leaders in their field and our grants nurture this talent, giving them the opportunity to gain experience and become independent scientists. 

Does a common childhood virus hold the key to reducing cancer risk and improving kidney survival in transplant patients? 

Kidney transplant patients develop ureter (the tube connecting the kidney to the bladder) and bladder cancers much more frequently than the general population, but we currently don’t know why this happens.  

Dr Simon Baker has a theory that the common childhood infection ‘BK virus’, which is often reactivated in kidney transplant patients when they take immunosuppressant drugs, causes changes in the cells that line the lower urinary tract that could lead to cancer. 

This study aims to highlight the importance of closely monitoring BK virus infection in kidney transplant patients and provide evidence to support a trial giving kidney transplant patients a vaccine against BK virus prior to transplant, or to test preventative treatments to reduce their risk of cancer and transplant rejection. 

  • Simon’s work is funded by an Intermediate Training Fellowship from Kidney Research UK for £255,800 

Improving our understanding of the role the immune system plays in problems encountered following kidney transplantation

The immune system is finely tuned to recognise foreign cells and attack them. This is useful when it comes to protecting us from bacteria and viruses, but it can complicate kidney transplant. In some patients, the immune system attacks the new kidney and can lead to rejection. This condition is often diagnosed too late when substantial damage has already been done.  

By studying a variety of disease markers, Dr Sarah Gleeson from Imperial College London will investigate whether there is a way to diagnose this immune attack on the transplanted kidney early on before irreversible damage is done. 

  • Sarah’s work is funded by a Clinical Training Fellowship from Kidney Research UK for £178,000. 

How does the stiffness of the cellular skeleton alter cyst growth in autosomal polycystic kidney disease?

Autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD) is a common inherited disease whereby large numbers of fluid-filled cysts grow in the kidneys. It is a leading cause of kidney failure in the UK and around half of patients will need dialysis or kidney transplant by the age of 60, but we don’t currently understand how or why cysts develop.  

Dr Joshua Griffiths from the University of Sheffield’s Kidney Genetics Group has discovered an interaction between a protein that we know can be disrupted in many patients with ADPKD and another protein that is important for controlling the structure of cells, how they move, how they stick together, and how they shuttle factors into the cells that can cause cell growth and multiplication. Joshua will study the interaction between these two proteins and investigate whether a disruption in this interaction may explain the development and growth of cysts in patients with ADPKD. This has the potential to highlight new treatment targets to slow or stop progression of ADPKD. 

  • Joshua’s work is jointly funded by a Clinical Training Fellowship from Kidney Research UK and the Medical Research Council for £271,460. 

Understanding the causes of childhood kidney failure and delivering therapies to treat them

Up to two in 100,000 children per year worldwide are diagnosed with diseases that they are born with that cause damage to their glomeruli- the tiny filtering units of the kidney. There are currently no treatments available to slow disease progression and these patients will ultimately require dialysis or transplant. These diseases tend to happen because of faults in the genes of cells, called podocytes, found within the glomeruli, but we don’t fully understand how these faults lead to disease.  

Using detailed genetic analysis in animal models with the most common gene faults that cause damage to the glomeruli, Dr Jennifer Chandler from the University College London Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, will identify potential targets for treating the disease. She will then test a new approach to deliver therapies specifically to the cells that become damaged, to slow and prevent the damage, offering hope that it may one day be possible to treat these children before irreversible damage is done. 

  • Jennifer’s work is funded by an Intermediate Training Fellowship from Kidney Research UK for £206,219

Studentships

Our PhD studentships support the training of a graduate student by an established renal researcher. 

Investigating changing the blood group of donor kidneys to increase the availability of suitable organs for transplantation

In kidney transplantation, donor and recipient blood groups must be matched so that they are compatible. If a kidney transplant is performed when the blood groups do not match, then immediate and irreversible rejection occurs, and the kidney is lost. 

One of the matching rules is that blood group O kidneys can be transplanted into a recipient with any other blood group. We have awarded Professor Michael Nicholson from the University of Cambridge a grant to recruit a PhD student to work on a project to chemically convert all donor kidneys to blood group O so that blood group matching is no longer relevant and everyone on the transplant waiting list has equal access to organs. 

  • Michael has been awarded a grant of £56,688 for two years  from Kidney Research UK for a PhD student to carry out this work 

A role for hair-like cell structures in kidney disease 

Ciliopathies are illnesses that happen as a result of damage to cilia – small hair-like structures that are on the surface of most cells in the human body that are responsible for sensing the cell’s environment and relaying messages to the cell. 

Phosphoinositides are fatty molecules that control where proteins are located within cells and when they are disrupted, this can affect cilia formation. 

We have awarded Dr Barbara Tanos from Brunel University London a grant to recruit a PhD Student to investigate the function of a protein that they have previously shown to control the distribution of phosphoinositides. This work will shed light on the causes of kidney ciliopathies and may reveal new targets for therapy. 

  • Barbara has been awarded a grant of £88,300 from Kidney Research UK for a PhD student to carry out this work

Research Project Grants

Our research project grants are awarded to scientists carrying out stand-alone research projects that will advance our knowledge of kidney disease and refine current treatments or lead to new advances in the future. 

Designing and manufacturing special immune cells to reduce kidney injury and prevent kidney scarring

Ischaemia-reperfusion injury is a process that occurs when the blood supply returns to a tissue that has been starved of oxygen for a period of time. This can be a common cause of acute kidney injury, for example following a period of very low blood pressure, or during kidney transplant and it can lead to scarring and the development of chronic kidney disease (CKD). There are currently no effective treatments for preventing or reversing kidney scarring. 

Tregs are special cells that can reduce inflammation and trigger organ repair. With our funding, Professor Giovanna Lombardi from King’s College London will engineer special cells called Tregs to bind to injured kidneys and protect them from damage with the hope that this could one day be used as therapy for patients to prevent kidney scarring. 

  • Giovanna’s work is funded by a research project grant from Kidney Research UK for £186,800 

Identifying risk factors in kidney transplant patients for disease caused by human cytomegalovirus infection

The majority of people in the UK have been infected with human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) at some point in their lives and most people won’t even know it. However, the virus remains in the body where it is controlled by the immune system, unless the immune system is compromised. This is the case following kidney transplant and HCMV can be reactivated and can cause a severe illness affecting many organs.  

We have awarded Dr Eddie Chung Yern Wang from Cardiff University a research project grant to analyse both the genetic code of viruses from different patients and the number and type of immune cell called natural killer cells to look for patterns to try to predict which patients will get HCMV disease and why, so that healthcare professionals will be able to prescribe anti-viral drugs only for those who need them and avoid unnecessary treatment for those who do not. 

  • Eddie’s work is funded by a research project grant from Kidney Research UK for £210,000 

Investigating potential treatments for childhood cystic kidney disease 

Nephronophthisis (NPHP) is an inherited condition that causes scarring and cysts to form in the kidney. It is the most common genetic cause of kidney failure in children and young adults and there is currently no cure. 

Professor John Sayer and his team at Newcastle University have identified a selection of 12 drugs that were able to treat patient cells. With our funding, the team will now test these drugs in cells taken from a number of different NPHP patients who have different faults in their genes. If successful, this work could lead to a new treatment for NPHP. 

  • John’s work is funded by a research project grant from Kidney Research UK for £224,760 

Innovation grants

Our innovation grants are to support new areas of clinical or scientific research where initial data is still required. 

How stress hormones change the daily rhythms of genes in the kidney arteries

Our blood pressure has a daily rhythm, and in healthy individuals it is over 10% lower during the night than during the day. However, this night-time dip is reduced or absent in the majority of patients with chronic kidney disease or kidney transplants. This phenomenon is called ‘non-dipping’ and is linked with increased risk of heart and vessel disease and worsening kidney disease.  

Steroid hormones are important and effective drugs for treating inflammatory kidney disease and they are also used as part of immunosuppression therapy after transplant, but we know they can also cause non-dipping. 

We have awarded Dr Jess Ivy from the University of Edinburgh an innovation grant to investigate the genetic changes in blood vessels after steroid hormone treatment to try to understand the change in blood pressure rhythms so that we can try to reduce the risks in patients who are receiving these drugs. 

  • Jess’s research is funded by an innovation grant from Kidney Research UK for £39,490 

Nanomedicines for the treatment of kidney disease

Glomerulonephritis is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the kidney, leading to inflammation, and it is a common cause of kidney failure. Current treatments aim to suppress the immune system to prevent kidney inflammation, but these treatments are not always effective, and many patients experience harmful side effects. 

Nanomedicines are microscopic ‘carrier’ particles that can deliver drugs directly to the organs or tissues where they are needed in the body. We have awarded Dr Steve McAdoo and his team at Imperial College London an innovation grant to test a novel nanomedicine which will carry a ‘repair protein’ to the kidney to treat inflammation. This novel approach may provide an innovative new way to improve drug efficiency while reducing potential side effects in a number of autoimmune and inflammatory kidney diseases in the future. 

We have awarded Steve an innovation grant to apply this nanomedicine approach to treat inflammation in the kidney. 

  • Steve’s research is funded by an innovation grant from Kidney Research UK for £40,000 

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