Thanks to a California clinician-scientist’s recruitment, UT Health San Antonio is now at the center of a major National Institutes of Health (NIH) initiative to improve scientific knowledge of kidney disease and revolutionize treatments. The project is bringing several million dollars of research to UT Health over the next five years.
Kumar Sharma, M.D., assumed duties Aug. 2 as professor and chief of nephrology in UT Health’s Joe R. & Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine. Dr. Sharma is also appointed as vice chair of research in the Department of Medicine and occupies the L. David Hillis, M.D. Endowed Chair in Medicine.
Just two weeks after his arrival from The University of California, San Diego, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) of NIH announced the multimillion-dollar Kidney Precision Medicine Project involving multiple institutions. UT Health San Antonio is the sole institution performing mass spectrometry imaging for the project and will receive an estimated $4 million over five years to perform this core service, Dr. Sharma said.
Mass spectrometry is an analytical technique that enables scientists to identify small molecules present in tissues. Specimens will be obtained at multiple clinical sites involved in the Kidney Precision Medicine Project. Imaging studies by UT Health San Antonio scientists will create maps of the molecules’ locations in the tissues.
Dr. Sharma’s and his colleagues’ major area of research is the study of diabetic kidney complications, with particular focus on disturbances in cellular power plants called mitochondria. “We’ve learned that mitochondrial dysfunction underlies diabetic complications in the kidney,” Dr. Sharma said.
Mitochondria are like the engines of cars, but they use carbon molecules in the form of glucose instead of gas. When there is excess glucose coming into the body, there is a malfunction of the mitochondrial apparatus, which results in inflammation, scarring and kidney failure. “Our research is focused on understanding this fundamental problem in the mitochondria with diabetes and identifying ways of monitoring mitochondrial function in patients,” Dr. Sharma said. “By restoring mitochondrial function, there is a very good possibility that organ function will improve.”
Maps of molecular signatures in kidney tissues should, in the future, enable researchers and clinicians to profile patients based on their particular signatures, track patients’ progress on therapy, and lead to development of novel medications to treat kidney disease. The Kidney Precision Medicine Project should ultimately help patients who have acute kidney injury and polycystic kidney disease (PKD), as well as those with diabetic kidney disease.
Dr. Sharma has led several large NIH-funded grant projects, including a $6 million award to identify novel paradigms in diabetic complications and a more than $3 million award for novel clinical research studies in diabetic nephropathy (kidney disease) from the NIDDK. He also led a project supported by more than $3 million from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to identify novel biomarkers in an international cohort of studies in type 1 diabetes.
Dr. Sharma serves on numerous study sections that provide scientific peer review of grant submissions to the NIDDK and is a standing member of the NIH Pathology of Kidney Disease study section.
“We are extremely pleased that Dr. Sharma has joined the Department of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio,” said W. Brian Reeves, M.D., chairman of medicine in the Long School of Medicine. “At UC San Diego he was professor of medicine, director of the Center for Renal Translational Medicine and director of the Institute of Metabolomic Medicine. It is an honor to have someone of his caliber at UT Health.”
Diabetic nephropathy is the leading cause of end-stage renal disease in the U.S. The NIH Kidney Precision Medicine Project is one of the crucial investigations that will seek ways to better treat this and other causes of kidney disease.
“We cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach in treating kidney disease,” Dr. Sharma said. “Instead we must engage in precision medicine, an approach that takes into account the differences between every patient at the molecular level.”
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