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Zhe Han

$2M NIH grant for treating disease linked to APOL1

Zhe Han

Children’s researcher Zhe Han, Ph.D., has received a $2 million award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study new approaches to treat kidney disease linked to inheriting Apolipoprotein L1 (APOL1) risk alleles. These risk alleles are particularly common among persons of recent African descent, and African Americans are disproportionately affected by the increased risk in kidney disease associated with these risk alleles.

Han, an associate professor in Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research, has established a leading research program that uses the fruit fly Drosophila as a model system to study how genetic mutations lead to disease.

Drosophila is a very basic model, but studies in the fly have led to major breakthroughs in understanding fundamental biological processes that underlie health and disease in humans,” Han says. “Since coming to Children’s National five years ago, I have focused a significant part of my research studying particular fly cells called nephrocytes that carry out many of the important roles of human kidney glomeruli, units within the kidney where blood is cleaned. Working together with clinician colleagues here, we have demonstrated that these Drosophila cells can be used to very efficiently study different types of renal disease caused by genetic mutations.”

The APOL1 risk alleles are genetic variants, termed G1 and G2, found almost exclusively in people of African ancestry and can lead to a four-fold higher risk of end-stage kidney disease, the last of five stages of chronic kidney disease. Exactly how inheriting these risk alleles increases the risk of kidney disease remains an unanswered question and the focus of considerable research activity. Han’s laboratory has developed a Drosophila model of APOL1-linked renal disease by producing the G1 and G2 forms of APOL1 specifically in nephrocytes. This led to defects in fly renal cells that strikingly overlap with disease-associated changes in experimental model and human kidney cells expressing APOL1 risk alleles.

The new NIH award will fund large-scale screening and functional testing to identify new treatment targets and new drugs to treat kidney disease linked to APOL1. Using a genetic screening approach, Han’s lab will identify nephrocyte “modifier” genes that interact with APOL1 proteins and counter the toxic effects of risk-associated G1 and G2 variants.

The team also will identify nephrocyte genes that are turned on or off in the presence of APOL1 risk alleles, and confirm that such “downstream” APOL1-regulated genes are similarly affected in experimental model and human kidney cells. The potential of the newly identified “modifier” and “downstream” genes to serve as targets of novel therapeutic interventions will be experimentally tested in fly nephrocytes in vivo and in cultured mammalian kidney cells.

Finally, the Drosophila model will be used as a drug screening platform for in vivo evaluation of positive “hits” from a cell-based APOL1 drug screening study in order to identify compounds that are most effective with the fewest side effects.

“These types of studies can be most efficiently performed in Drosophila,” Han adds.  “They take advantage of the speed and low cost of the fly model system and the amazing array of well-established, sophisticated genetic tools available for the fly. Using this model to elucidate human disease mechanisms and to identify new effective therapies has truly become my research passion.”

child in wheelchair with mom

Potential to replace race as a risk factor for kidney-transplant failure

child in wheelchair with mom

Right now, more than 100,000 adult and pediatric patients in the U.S. are waiting for a life-saving kidney donation. Thirteen of them die each day while awaiting a transplant. However, a significant portion of kidneys from deceased donors are discarded because they literally don’t make the grade – a scoring system known as the kidney donor profile index (KDPI) that aims to predict how long a donor kidney will last in an intended recipient based on a variety of factors, including the donor’s age, size and health history.

Ethnicity and race are also part of that scoring system, explains Marva Moxey-Mims, M.D., FASN, chief of the Division of Nephrology at Children’s National Health System. That’s partly because research over the years has suggested that kidneys from certain racial groups, including African-Americans, may not have the same longevity as those from other groups.

But race might not be the right marker to consider, Dr. Moxey-Mims counters. More recent studies have shown that a particular gene known as APOL1 might better predict risk of kidney-transplant failure. APOL1 high-risk variants are associated with a wide range of kidney diseases, with retrospective studies suggesting that they could be a key cause of failure in some donated kidneys. Although this gene is found almost exclusively in people of recent African descent, only about 13 percent of that population has high-risk APOL1 variants that might cause kidney problems.

“Instead of putting all African-American donor kidneys in one proverbial ‘bucket,’ we might be able to use this gene to determine if they truly carry a higher risk of early failure,” Dr. Moxey-Mims says.

To more definitively confirm whether this gene could be used as a proxy for heightened kidney-failure risk, Dr. Moxey-Mims and colleagues across the country are participating in the APOL1 Long-Term Kidney Transplantation Outcomes Network (APOLLO) study, she and Dr. Barry Freedman explain in a perspective published online April 27, 2018, in Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology. The APOLLO study will tap people accessing the hundreds of transplant centers scattered across the nation, prospectively genotyping deceased and living African-American kidney donors as well as kidney-transplant recipients to assess whether they carry high-risk APOL1 gene variants. Living donors and transplant recipients will be followed for years to gauge how their kidneys fare over time.

The researchers, Dr. Moxey-Mims explains, hope to answer whether the APOL1 high-risk gene variants in donor kidneys could replace race as a risk factor when calculating the KDPI score and whether recipients’ own APOL1 gene variants impact transplant failure risk. They also hope to better understand the risk to living donors. “If a living donor has an increased risk of kidney failure,” she adds, “he or she can make a more educated decision about whether to donate a kidney.”

Dr. Moxey-Mims plays a pivotal role as the chair of the study’s steering committee, a group made up of the study’s principal investigators at all 13 clinical sites and the Data Coordinating Center, as well as the program officials from the National Institutes of Health funding institutes (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities). She will play a key part in helping to ensure that the study stays on track with recruitment goals, as well as publicizing the study at national meetings.

The study also includes a Community Advisory Council, a group made up of stakeholders in this study: 26 African-Americans who either have donated a kidney, received a kidney donation, are on dialysis awaiting a kidney transplant, or have a close relative in one of those categories. This group has helped to steer the study design in multiple ways, Dr. Moxey-Mims explains. For example, they have worked with study leaders to simplify the language on consent forms, helped to delineate which data study participants might want to receive when the study is completed, and helped to publicize the study in their communities by giving talks at churches and other venues.

Eventually, Dr. Moxey-Mims says APOLLO study researchers hope that clarifying the role of the APOL1 gene in kidney-transplant failure could lead to fewer discarded kidneys, which could boost the number of available kidneys for patients awaiting transplants.

“Down the road, the pool of patients awaiting transplant might have access to more kidneys because available organs aren’t getting a bad score simply because the donor is African-American,” she says. “We hope this might shorten the wait for some patients and their families who are desperate to get that call that a kidney is finally available.”

Financial support for research reported in the post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under grant numbers R01 DK084149, R01 DK070941 and U01 DK116041.