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Professor Jeremy Hughes:  Investing in the best science and people

Jeremy Hughes

Professor Jeremy Hughes is a Professor of Experimental Nephrology at the University of Edinburgh and an Honorary Consultant Nephrologist at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

He combines his clinical and teaching roles with his research work, which focuses on the role of a white blood cell, called the macrophage, in kidney injury, scarring and healing.

Professor Hughes is also chairman of Kidney Research UK’s Research Grant Committee. He was elected to the post in 2013, but his tenure as chairman will come to an end in early 2018.

We caught up with him to find out about the work of the committee and ask him about some of the highlights of his time as chairman of the Research Grant Committee.

Since this interview, Jeremy has gone on to be elected as the chair of trustees for the charity.

Q: What does the role of chairman involve on the Kidney Research UK Research Grant Committee?

I work with the charity to oversee the assessment process of submitted research grants. These include research project and programme grants, innovation grants and personal clinical and scientific fellowships. I nominate members of the committee with relevant expertise to manage the expert review process for every grant. Grants are then shortlisted for discussion at a committee meeting, based upon the comments and opinions of external expert referees who have reviewed them in detail. I chair the meeting and my aim is to ensure that all grants are discussed fairly and in depth so the committee as a whole has a real understanding of the proposed research before decisions are made.

There is significant work involved in reading and digesting the details of all submitted grants and the referee reports, but I have always enjoyed this. I’m pleased to say the chairman workload has significantly increased recently as Kidney Research UK has been very successful in increasing the funding available for research. When I became chairman we had a main Research Project Grant round and a Fellowships round, leading to two meetings per year. In recent years we have had additional rounds of research funding, including the Make EVERY Kidney Count Awards for transplant-related research and the John Feehally-Stoneygate Awards which are targeted to different areas of research with each round. In addition, the recent merger with Kids Kidney Research will provide additional funding opportunities for paediatric research.

The committee also reviews and gives feedback on rules and procedures (protocols) relating to industry-funded projects overseen and governed by Kidney Research UK. Examples include the PIVOTAL study, a large clinical trial examining the optimal dose of iron therapy in dialysis patients, and the NURTuRE national biobank project. Lastly, as chairman I am also a member of the charity’s Renal Strategy Committee which discusses the activity and direction of the organisation.

Q: Are there any projects (past or ongoing) that stand out for you?

Kidney Research UK has funded many excellent projects that span the full range of bench to bedside research. Recent advances in genetics have led to many interesting projects trying to identify the nature and effects of gene mutations involved in diverse kidney diseases. The greater funding made available through the Making EVERY Kidney Count appeal has allowed researchers to be more ambitious and led to several projects with the potential to really change the clinical landscape. These include examining the role of a pioneering warm perfusion technique to make more kidneys suitable for transplantation; developing a drug which may be a novel treatment for rejection; running a multi-centre UK trial to see if we can improve the early function of kidney transplants and holding a randomised trial to determine the best treatment for patients who have antibody-mediated rejection (a severe complication of renal transplantation).

Q: What sparked your passion for renal medicine and research?

I first encountered renal medicine as a junior doctor at the Hammersmith Hospital and decided to specialise in this area. I worked with Prof Andy Rees and Prof Charles Pusey during my Renal Registrar job and they inspired me to undertake a period of research leading to a PhD. My PhD supervisor was John Savill (now Professor Sir John Savill) and he was a great supervisor and mentor for my future career. He passed on a love for the white blood cells called macrophages which are so important in inflammation, scarring and healing of many organs including the kidney. I remain fascinated by their complexity and elegance and much of my current research studies macrophages in kidney disease, as well as in liver and brain injury.

Q: Are you excited by the volume and quality of new research projects coming forward?

Yes I am, but we’re not able to fund all of the research proposals deemed to be scientifically worthy of support – and this is frustrating. However, I know that the charity is working very hard to try and increase the funding available for research. I believe it is important to invest in and support the best basic science and clinical researchers because, if we allow them to establish and develop their work, then they will attract additional funding from other areas to research kidney disease.

Q: And what could this mean for kidney patients?

Although the pace of change is often frustratingly slow, I do believe new therapies or existing drugs that are repurposed for a kidney disease will enter clinical trials in the next 5-10 years. Therefore, it is vitally important the renal research community works in collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry to drive this area forward.

Q: Have you enjoyed your time as chairman?

Immensely. In particular, it is so rewarding when the charity invests in researchers with important questions, clear research plans and the determination to drive their research forward. They are the future.

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