“Kidney disease is hard enough for adults,” says Dr. Sunny Hartwig, assistant professor of Biomedical Sciences at UPEI’s Atlantic Veterinary College. “But for a kid, it means not being able to play soccer. Or baseball. Instead, you spend your after-school hours sitting in a hospital room hooked up to a dialysis machine that manually filters your blood.”
Hartwig says children with end-stage renal (kidney) failure have two unpleasant options: transplant or dialysis.
“And dialysis has some real drawbacks. No machine can do what the kidneys do,” she explains. “Kids on dialysis may struggle with obesity, bad skin, and are also more likely to develop diabetes. As a result, many really struggle with self esteem. It’s a quality of life issue for the patient, and their families.”
Hartwig uses this knowledge as motivation for her work in the lab. She and her team are studying the genetics behind kidney disease.
“But before we can understand what genes contribute to kidney disease, we have to first understand normal gene development – we need to know how kidneys form in utero.”
Many research labs around the world are working on this same problem using a technique called knocked-down approach, which works subtractively to demonstrate what role specific genes play in normal development.
“Researchers have identified a gene known as WT1,” says Hartwig. “And what we know now is, if WT1 is faulty, the kidney develops a cancer known as nephroblastoma. If WT1 is removed all together, the kidney doesn’t develop at all. WT1 is now obviously a very important piece of the puzzle.”
Hartwig says there are still many years of research ahead, but she remains hopeful for the future.
“I believe we will see a cure for this within our lifetime,” she says. “And not just a tool to prevent the disease from developing before birth, but regeneration. I believe we’ll find a way to help diseased kidneys repair themselves. It’s an exciting time to be involved in this research.”
Hartwig recently received significant funding for her research from the Kidney Foundation of Canada.