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Searching for new ways to control BK virus after kidney transplant

18 January 2024

Dr Simon Baker from the University of York has received a Kidney Research UK PhD Studentship award of £83,000 to find new targets for the treatment of BK virus in patients with a kidney transplant.

The problem with BK virus for kidney patients

BK virus is a common infection that many people get in childhood. Once you have been infected with BK virus, it can hide in the kidneys without causing harm.

When someone has received a new kidney, it must be protected from the body’s immune system using drugs known as immunosuppression. These drugs prevent the immune system from attacking the new kidney, but they also make it harder for the immune system to fight off infections like the BK virus. When the immune system is suppressed, BK virus, which was present but inactive, can become active again. This can lead to problems in the urinary tract, transplant rejection and is also linked to the higher risk of bladder cancer seen in transplant recipients.

Simon Baker
Dr Simon Baker

The solution to control BK virus infection

BK virus infects the cells that line the urinary tract; Simon and his team have found a way to study these cells in a dish in the lab. Supported by this grant, Simon’s new PhD student will use two approaches to investigate ways to control BK virus infection.

The student will first use gene editing technology to understand whether removing any genes could protect against virus infection; inhibitors against the proteins made by these genes could make effective new therapies.

Simon and the team recently observed in human tissues that when cells of the urinary tract are infected by BK virus, the healthy neighbouring cells bundle up the infected cells and push them out into the urine to be transported away. If the team can find a therapy to boost the natural sensitivity of urinary tract cells to signs of viral infection, then this could clear the infection, even when the patient is taking immunosuppressive drugs.

A microscope images of health cells and infected cells
This image shows the healthy cells working together to eject the virally infected cells (that are coloured brown)

What this might mean for patients

There is currently no specific antiviral treatment to fight BK virus, and the only approach is to reduce immunosuppression and risk acute rejection. This research has the potential to uncover targets for new BK-specific antiviral treatments to improve the health of kidney transplant recipients.

"BK virus is a leading cause of kidney transplant failure, but we don't currently have a therapy that targets the virus specifically. With this new funding from Kidney Research UK we hope to be able to find new treatment approaches that target the way BK virus lives in our cells and by doing so protect transplants from this potentially damaging infection." Dr Simon Baker

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