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The Kidney Community Advances Innovative Solutions and Improves Patient Care—Even During a National Pandemic Crisis


Authors from the American Society of Nephrology and Kidney Care Partners discuss the response of the kidney care community to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As health professionals and medical researchers raced to understand the wide-reaching effects of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), kidney professionals have taken on more, transformed treatment, and made critical improvements to a system that serves more than 37 million Americans.

As the HHS 2020 progress report on the Advancing American Kidney Health (AAKH) initiative highlighted, the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need to prevent at-risk people from developing kidney failure, reduce the number of patients on in-center dialysis, and increase the number of kidneys available for transplant.

Initially believed to only affect the respiratory system, the virus also affects other organs in the body, including the kidneys. Those living with kidney diseases—and especially those with kidney failure or who have recently received a transplant—are at a greater risk of contracting a deadly infection because of their weakened immune systems.

Kidney patients are 3.5 times more likely to become infected with COVID-19, and COVID-19 patients with kidney diseases are 2.5 times more likely to be hospitalized according to CMS. Kidney patients have the highest COVID-19-related hospitalization rate among all Medicare beneficiaries and are 2.5 times more likely to die than other patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

Minority populations were already disproportionally impacted by kidney diseases, and the pandemic exposes and exacerbates existing health inequities. For example, when compared to white Americans, African Americans are nearly 4 times more likely and Hispanics are 1.5 times more likely to develop kidney failure.

The kidney community is advocating for millions in new funding for research that is essential to developing innovative treatments, a multi-faceted campaign to raise public awareness, legislation to increase patient access to therapies that treat complications associated with kidney disease and increase the likelihood of kidney transplantation, and a comprehensive and realistic roadmap charting the future of kidney care.

KidneyX, which began in 2018 as a public-private partnership between HHS and the American Society of Nephrology, has already invested more than $4 million to develop next-generation of treatments and care delivery methods and plans more prizes in the near future. The 6 winners of the Kidney X Redesign Dialysis Phase 2 competition, announced in April 2020, received a total of $3 million for work that will transform dialysis treatment.

On October 30, 2020, KidneyX launched its $10 million Artificial Kidney Prize, an ambitious new awards program to spur development of an artificial kidney and provide people living with kidney failure an alternative to dialysis. KidneyX will lay the groundwork for first-in-human (FIH) clinical trials of multiple prototypes in just a few short years. 

Meanwhile, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) continues to support groundbreaking research to uncover revolutionary discoveries. The Kidney Precision Medicine Project, a pioneering projected funded by NIDDK, is working to identify critical pathways and targets for new therapies by obtaining and evaluating human kidney biopsies.

The kidney community is also working to raise awareness about the risks and impact of kidney disease—particularly among minority communities. The National Kidney Foundation’s “Are You The 33%?” awareness campaign highlights the fact that while about one-third of Americans are at risk of developing kidney diseases in their lifetime, many don’t know it. This campaign will help educate Americans who are at risk and encourage them to seek treatment early.

Kidney Care Partners (KCP), a diverse community of patients, professionals, researchers, and manufacturers, has put forth its own framework for improving care, enhancing lives, and saving health care dollars. Launched in June 2019, Kidney Care FIRST: A Framework for Improving Renal Disease Support & Treatment outlines a renewed vision for the future of kidney care and makes clear a set of policy priorities should be undertaken to address the full spectrum of the disease cycle.

To protect the health and well-being of all Americans, especially those made vulnerable from kidney diseases, it is crucial that we use all our resources – including what we learn during this pandemic – to develop new therapies and a dynamic, patient-centered focus on transforming kidney care.

Author Information

Anupam Agarwal, MD, FASN, is president of the American Society of Nephrology and John P. Butler, chair of Kidney Care Partners, is president & CEO of Akebia Therapeutics.

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