Katz Center Builds Global Reputation for Excellence in Kidney Disease Research

November was a triumphant month for the Miller School of Medicine’s Peggy and Harold Katz Family Drug Discovery Center. When the American Society of Nephrology held its annual Kidney Week global conference in Philadelphia, the Center’s entire research team was in attendance because every one of their submissions had been accepted for presentation. Earlier in the month, the Center signed a $3.3 million contract with Swiss-based pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann-LaRoche for drug discovery related to two rare kidney diseases. And, as was previously announced, Center Director Alessia Fornoni, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of medicine in the Division of Nephrology and Hypertension, was named the recipient of the Peggy and Harold Katz Family Chair.

“Kidney Week is the most prominent nephrology conference held each year,” said Fornoni. “Our presence at the conference was one of our largest in several years, and I share with Dr. Oliver Lenz, Chief of the Division of Nephrology and Hypertension, the pride in such an achievement.”

Fornoni gave an oral presentation and spoke at two symposia about new strategies for targets identification and drug development in proteinuric kidney diseases, work she has been conducting for the past few years with Sandra Merscher, Ph.D., research assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Nephrology and Hypertension. Gabriel Contreras, M.D., professor of medicine in the Division of Nephrology and Hypertension, moderated a clinical session on lupus nephritis. Christian Faul, Ph.D., research assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Nephrology and Hypertension, moderated a basic science session on podocyte biology.

Oral abstracts were presented by Ph.D. student Christopher Pedigo; alumnus Ansel Amaral, M.D., Ph.D., now in residency at Northwestern University; and post-doctoral research fellow Alexander Grabner, M.D. Amaral and Grabner presented work from Faul’s laboratory on the identification of a potentially novel drug target in the heart whose pharmacological blockade might protect from left ventricular hypertrophy, thereby prolonging the lives of millions of patients suffering from chronic kidney disease.

Poster sessions were presented by graduate students Karla Schramm, Saurav Singh and Alexis Sloan; and post-doctoral fellows Mayrin Correa, M.D., Ph.D, and Alla Mitrofanova, Ph.D. The nephrology fellowship program directed by Ivonne Schulman, M.D., was also well represented, with clinical fellows Mohamed El Kassem, Bernice Acevedo, Roger Keshav and Sheyla Zelaya having poster presentations relevant to clinical nephrology.

“Everybody at the Center is funded by their own grants,” said Fornoni. “Three of our five graduate students are NIH funded, which is really quite remarkable. Receiving NIH funding demonstrates that they are working on innovative projects and that they are being properly mentored.” In addition, Christopher Pedigo, a graduate student in the laboratory of Dr. Merscher, is the recipient of a Predoctoral Fellowship of the American Heart Association and a TREKS fellowship of the American Society of Nephrology.

The contract with Hoffmann-LaRoche is for research to develop new pharmaceutical treatments for two uncommon kidney diseases — focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) and Alport syndrome.

“Most patients with these disorders are children or young adults needing kidney transplants early in life,” said Fornoni. “We are being contacted by families from all over the world because physician-scientists working in collaboration with the Katz Center have been offering and reporting a variety of experimental therapeutic options that hold promise for these patients.”

Toward that end, the Center is also increasing its role as scientific arm of the Miami Transplant Institute, thanks to the successful long-term collaboration with George W. Burke III, M.D., professor of surgery and Director of the MTI’s Kidney/Pancreas Transplant Program

“We are in a position to significantly contribute to the research function of the MTI,” said Fornoni. “Working together will help maintain the MTI as one of the world’s leading centers for kidney transplantation.”

“My vision is to develop a research center where the standard parameters of academic growth, based on excellent education and NIH-funded translational research, are paralleled by a strong drive to facilitate development and commercialization of new intellectual property,” she said. “In this respect, my vision is one that brings industry, investors, and not-for-profit organizations around the table with the intent to match science with innovation and patients’ motivation to find a cure for kidney diseases. That is my goal for the future, and I think we are heading in the right direction.”

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