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New study to understand if a common childhood viral infection may hold the key to reducing cancer risk and improving kidney survival in transplant patients

28 January 2022

Thanks to our funding, Dr Simon Baker from the University of York will begin a study to understand whether a common childhood infection (‘BK virus’) causes changes to the cells of the lower urinary tract that lead to cancer. This study aims to highlight potential treatments and preventative measures to tackle cancer in kidney patients. 

Dr Simon Baker holding a pipette and vile
Dr Simon Baker researching ways to tackle cancer in kidney patients

Transplant patients have a higher risk of lower urinary tract cancers

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.  

BK virus is commonly caught during childhood. Once you have been infected with BK virus, it can stay dormant in the kidney unless it is reactivated. Reactivation can happen in around one-in-five kidney transplant patients due to the medication used to stop transplant rejection.  

Is BK virus behind the increased risk of cancers?

The bladder and ureter are lined with layers of cells which together are called the ‘urothelium’. Simon has collected evidence that BK virus infects human urothelium, leaving changes that could lead to cancer. He will now test his theory that BK virus infection leads to changes in the urothelium that cause cancer in kidney transplant patients. 

Tackling the problem

Our fellowship grant will allow Simon to infect cells from the urothelium growing in a dish with BK virus to study changes to the cells’ DNA caused by the virus. He will then compare this to the DNA of tumours taken from kidney transplant patients with a history of BK virus infection to see if he can see any similarities. Simon will also analyse the infected cells that are shed in the urine of patients with active BK virus infection to identify biomarkers for monitoring progression of the disease. 

If Simon’s theory is correct, this study will highlight the importance of monitoring BK virus more closely 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 said: “I am really excited to begin my fellowship with Kidney Research UK, it marks an important step in my career and this research is critically needed to improve our understanding of why transplant patients get more cancers in the urothelium. Our findings should help us to improve the care we give to kidney transplant patients but also have wider implications for those who develop bladder cancer.”  

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

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