NEWS
03/31/2016 17:22 EDT | Updated 04/01/2017 01:12 EDT

B.C. team co-leads $59M kidney disease initiative

A research team from British Columbia will co-lead a major new initiative to reduce the number of people affected by kidney disease across Canada.

The $59 million federal grant across five years is the biggest investment into a disease which affects one in 10 Canadians, and costs more than $50 billion per year in health care services.

Dr. Adeera Levin, head of the division of nephrology at UBC, and executive director of the B.C. Renal Agency will co-lead the study alongside the University of Calgary's Dr. Braden Manns.

'A landmark explosion'

"This is a fantastic opportunity for people living with kidney disease," Levin told CBC New on Thursday.

"For the first time ever in Canada, a network of researchers, patients, policy makers and clinicians will be able to work together to solve the problems facing people living with kidney disease."

Levin said that although researchers across the country have been  working together as a community for a while, funding has only emerged piecemeal, and has generally been provincially-based.

"This really is a landmark explosion, if you will — a large infusion of cash into the research enterprise."

Levin said that the research will take three major themes: how to identify the disease early; find the best treatment for patients; and ensure 21st century care is available and delivered.

The study will also take a close look at the needs of indigenous peoples, whose ability to access the health care they need is subpar, Levin said.

"There's a huge issue in terms of access to care for indigenous peoples," she explained. "That's a problem both of geography as well as culture and history. This is really an attempt to meet that head on. "

First Nations, Metis and Inuit policy makers, patients and educators will be involved in the project, forming a research council specific to indigenous issues.

"The idea is that across the country, we'll try to get some more uniformed ways to make sure all provinces have a way to address this problem."

The patient's perspective

Kate Huffman was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease in her mid-twenties. Now 31, the manager of community relations at the PNE will take part in the study, one of many patients across the country brought on to give their perspective.

"[It's about] really giving the perspective of what's important to patients," she told CBC News. "Also asking questions and giving researchers that direct chance to hear from patients what's important to them, so they can actually move forward on research projects that'll make life quality changes."

Through her own research into slowing the progress of her disease over the past two years, Huffman said she wanted to get involved with the community to try and make a difference where she can.

"I was functioning at about 13 per cent kidney [function] five years ago. Now I'm functioning at about 33 to 34 per cent. It's still not great, but it's a huge improvement," she said.

"A lot of people don't have that kind of luxury to increase their function. So for myself, there's a high probability it will start to decline. Especially moving forward.

"I'm looking to start a family, and so there's definitely lots of implications of wanting to do that and the effects on my health."

Areas of research

The study plans to look at a number of  possibilities to reduce the number of people requiring dialysis or kidney transplants, or developing debilitating or deadly illnesses related to kidney disease, including:

- Broader screening, especially among indigenous people, who are more at risk of developing chronic kidney disease;

- Potential biomarkers that enable earlier diagnosis and predict who is at most risk for kidney failure;

- Drugs or stem cells that could slow the disease's progression;

- Education about proven strategies for diet and water consumption; and

- New ways of providing care, especially for people who live far from kidney specialists.

The funding was announced in Vancouver Thursday by federal health minister Jane Philpott as part of a series of grants totaling more than $62 million awarded across five health networks to address chronic disease in Canada.

With files from Farrah Merali