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kidneys with cysts on them

$6M gift powers new PKD clinical and research activities

kidneys with cysts on them

PKD is a genetic disorder characterized by clusters of fluid-filled sacs (cysts) multiplying and interfering with the kidneys’ ability to filter waste from the blood.

When Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D., McGehee Joyce Professor of Pediatrics at Children’s National Hospital, considers a brand-new gift, she likens it to 6 million gallons of “rocket fuel” that will power new research to better understand polycystic kidney disease.

Dr. Guay-Woodford received a $5.7 million dollar gift to support PKD clinical and research activities. PKD is a genetic disorder characterized by clusters of fluid-filled sacs (cysts) multiplying and interfering with the kidneys’ ability to filter waste from the blood. The kidneys’ smooth surface transforms to a bumpy texture as the essential organs grow oversized and riddled with cysts.

The extraordinary generosity got its start in an ordinary clinical visit.

Dr. Guay-Woodford saw a young patient in her clinic at Children’s National a few times in 2015. The child’s diagnosis sparked a voyage of discovery for the patient’s extended family and, ultimately, they attended a presentation she gave during a regional meeting about PKD. That led to a telephone conversation and in-person meeting as they invited her to describe “the white space” between what was being done at the time to better understand PKD and what could be done.

“It’s the power of the art and science of medicine. They come to see people like me because of the science. If we can convey to patients and families that who they are and their unique concerns are really important to researchers, that becomes a powerful connection,” she says. “The art plus the science equals hope. That is what these families are looking for: We give people the latest insights about their disease because information is power.”

The infusion of new funding will strengthen the global initiative’s four pillars:

  • Coordinated care for children and families impacted by renal cystic disease. The Inherited and Polycystic Kidney Disease (IPKD) program, launched September 2019, includes a cadre of experts working together as a team in the medical home so that “in a single, one-stop visit, Children’s National can address the myriad concerns they have,” she explains. A multi-disciplinary team that includes nephrologists, hepatologists and endocrinology experts meets weekly to ensure the Center of Excellence provides the highest-caliber patient care. The team includes genetic counselors to empower families with knowledge about genetic risks and testing opportunities. A nurse helps families navigate the maze of who to call about which issue. Psychologists help to ease anxiety. “There is stress. There is fear. There is pain that can be associated with this set of diseases. The good news is we can control their medical issues. The bad news is some children have difficulty coping. Our psychologists help children cope so they can be a child and do the normal things that children do,” she says.
  • Strengthening global databases to capture PKD variations. The team will expand its outreach to other centers located around the world – including Australia, Europe, India and Latin America – caring for patients with both the recessive and dominant forms of polycystic kidney disease, to better understand the variety of ways the disease can manifest in children. We really don’t know a lot about kids with the dominant form of the disease. How hard should we push to control their blood pressure, knowing that could ease symptoms? What are the ramifications of experiencing acute pain compared with chronic pain? How much do these pain flareups interfere with daily life and a child’s sense of self,” she asks. Capturing the nuances of the worldwide experience offers the power of harnessing even more data. And ensuring that teams collect data in a consistent way means each group would have the potential to extract the most useful information from database queries.
  • Filling a ‘desperate need’ for biomarkers. Developing clinical trials for new therapies requires having biomarkers that indicate the disease course. Such biomarkers have been instrumental in personalizing care for patients with other chronic conditions. “We are in desperate need for such biomarkers, and this new funding will underwrite pilot studies to identify and validate these disease markers. The first bite at the apple will leverage our imaging data to identify promising biomarkers,” she says.
  • Genetic mechanisms that trigger kidney disease. About 500,000 people in the U.S. have PKD. In many cases, children inherit a genetic mutation but, often, their genetic mutation develops spontaneously. Dr. Guay-Woodford’s research about the mechanisms that make certain inherited renal disorders lethal, such as autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease, is recognized around the world. The fourth pillar of the new project provides funding to continue her lab’s research efforts to improve the mechanistic understanding of what triggers PKD.
Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D

Serving patients with polycystic kidney disease

Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D

Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D., is internationally recognized for her examination of the mechanisms that make certain inherited renal disorders particularly lethal, a research focus inspired by her patients.

When Children’s National pediatric nephrologist Lisa Guay-Woodford, M.D., was an intern at Boston Children’s Hospital, a baby with autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease (ARPKD) was admitted to one of the hospital’s neonatal intensive care units (NICU). This disease, which causes cysts to form in the kidney and liver, kills about one-fifth of babies within the newborn period due to related problems that affect lung development.

But this baby seemed like a survivor, Dr. Guay-Woodford remembers. The child passed the newborn period and graduated from the NICU, although she went home with severe blood pressure issues. Along with a team of colleagues, Dr. Guay-Woodford helped to manage this patient’s care, juggling normal infant concerns with her ARPKD.

As far as Dr. Guay-Woodford knew at the time, this baby was beating the odds against her, growing and thriving. But one day near the end of her internship period, Dr. Guay-Woodford was called to the emergency department. Her patient was in a hypertensive crisis that ultimately killed her.

“It was absolutely devastating to all of us. This was supposed to be a good news kind of story, that she survived the newborn period and had gone home and was growing and developing,” Dr. Guay-Woodford says. “I realized then that a big part of the tragedy of this disease is how little we knew about it.”

Dr. Guay-Woodford vowed to change that. Since then, she’s devoted her career to studying ARPKD and other inherited kidney diseases.

After finishing her residency and fellowship in Boston, Dr. Guay-Woodford was recruited to the University of Alabama, where she began caring for a cadre of 40 patients with inherited renal disorders. Fueled by the research questions that arose while working with these patients, she and her colleagues searched for PKD-related genes in the cpk mouse model, an animal that mimics many of the features of human ARPKD.

Dr. Guay-Woodford and her team cloned several of the key genes that caused recessive PKD in this mouse and other mouse models and eventually went on to identify the first major genetic modifier of PKD in these animals – a gene that wasn’t directly responsible for the disease but could sway its course. In time, her collaborative group became one of two that co-indentified the major gene responsible for human ARPKD. In 2005, Dr. Guay-Woodford led a team of investigators at the University of Alabama-Birmingham to establish one of just four PKD translational core centers funded by a National Institutes of Health P30 grant.

After moving to Children’s National in 2012, Dr. Guay-Woodford still co-directs this PKD translational core center while also caring for patients at her inherited renal disorders clinic. She and her colleagues here and beyond continue to work with mouse models of this disease, trying to ferret out the vast network of genes that interact in ARPKD and their specific roles.

“You can use a variety of strategies to compare these patients’ gene portfolios with those of healthy patients and pick out the disease genes. But at the end of the day, to me, that’s just the opening chapter,” she says. “To really make a story, you’ve got to understand what is it that gene does, what protein it makes, and how that protein works together with others involved in this disease.”

She and her team also are currently working with a pharmaceutical company to develop the first clinical trial to test a treatment for ARPKD. This effort has relied heavily on a clinical database that Dr. Guay-Woodford and colleagues worldwide maintain to track patients with this and related conditions. Through the extensive collection of clinical information in this database – including a variety of data on patients’ gestation and birth, growth, and kidney structure and function – the team has identified a core cohort of patients whose disease is rapidly progressing, a characteristic that makes them prime candidates to test this potential new treatment.

“Everything I do in the clinic informs the work I do in the lab, and everything I do in the lab is to help the patients I see in the clinic. It’s this constant dance back and forth between our human patients and animal models,” she says. “One day, this dance will help lessen the burden of this disease for these kids and their families.”