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Former Queen’s physician on his trustee role

09 November 2022

Professor John Cunningham has always recognised the importance of relationships – through his research into the corelation between the kidney and other body systems and through his close bonds with his patients, students and colleagues.  

Now he is working with Kidney Research UK to bring groups together to fight kidney disease and highlight its true cost to the nation. 

John became a trustee for Kidney Research UK in 2020, after a retiring lay trustee suggested that he should take on the voluntary role. 

“It was actually a very easy decision to make,” says John, who is a professor of nephrology at University College London Medical School and The Royal Free Hospital and an honorary fellow of Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge. 

“I believed that Kidney Research UK had a rigorous process for assessing the quality of grants and I knew that there were some very good people there. I also thought that my rather hybrid background in clinical medicine, research and education would make me a good fit for the charity.  

“Viewed from outside it seemed to me that Kidney Research UK was a good quality organisation and now viewed from inside I believe that more strongly still.” 

John sits on the charity’s Research Strategy Committee, which oversees the work of the charity to ensure that it is progressing in its drive to accelerate high quality kidney research and become an organisation that brings groups together, supports innovation and challenges the status quo.  

Professor John Cunningham sat at his desk
Professor John Cunningham

“There’s a great esprit de corps (team spirit) in the charity, you can really sense it, in our meetings, when we meet on Teams, at fundraising events and at our annual Fellows Day where researchers share information about their work. I’ve always been energised by the buzz that young people, many at the very start of their medical or research careers, transmit and it’s very nice when you’re in the second half of your career to spend time with these people and to be able to offer advice – a nudge here, a steer there – it’s very satisfying.” 

Inspiration for renal career

John was inspired to embark on a renal career by his teacher and role model John Ledingham, professor of clinical medicine and former director of clinical studies at the University of Oxford.  

His research work took him to universities in the USA before returning to the UK to establish his clinical career in London. 

An unexpected invitation also resulted in John taking up the role of Physician to the late Queen for almost 20 years – an appointment that was unrelated to his renal work but which he remembers fondly as a “slightly surreal adventure and a great privilege”.  

“The areas of kidney medicine and research that have always intrigued me most have been all to do with the chemistry – the metabolic stuff, the interplay between the kidneys, the bones and the cardiovascular system,” says John.  

“There’s a conversation going on the whole time in the chemical sense between those three parts of the body.  That cross-talk should be constructive, but when one organ is in a bad shape this causes a knock on effect on the others. So a dodgy heart has a major adverse effect on the kidneys and dodgy kidneys have major adverse effects on the heart and the arteries and the bones.”  

Understanding the reality of kidney disease

Through his clinical work, John has forged long-term relationships with his kidney patients and has witnessed, all too often, the stark reality of living with kidney failure. 

“Most of the kidney patients that die prematurely are dying of heart and arterial disease. One awful statistic shows that if you are a dialysis patient aged around 30 your life expectancy is roughly that of a normal 85-year-old because of the increased cardiovascular risk,” says John. 

“This stark association means that if you get kidney failure and need dialysis, you’re in a much more dangerous position than you are with most cancers. Now that we have a better understanding of the overlap between the heart and the kidney, we need to draw the cardiac fraternity into our conversations.” 

He believes that Kidney Research UK has a key role to play in raising the profile of kidney disease within government, forging closer ties with heart and diabetes charities, and improving conversations between pharmaceutical companies and regulatory bodies to help accelerate research to prevent disease and develop better treatments for kidney patients. 

“Change needs to happen. The current levels of discussion and concern about kidney disease in the corridors of power are utterly disgraceful. And it’s crazy because they are spending a fortune using dialysis to treat an end stage disease and giving many patients an awful quality of life in the process,” says John. 

“I think the charity can bring groups together and encourage people away from ‘silo mentality’ so we can capitalise on opportunities to do more research and give more support to people affected by the disease.”  

“Although we have much work to do, I do feel encouraged and optimistic about the future. It’s an exciting time to be a trustee for the charity.” 

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