If you’re looking to fund medical research in Canada and want to get the most for your dollar in terms of directly improving the lives of Canadian patients, it’s hard to find a better investment than kidney disease research. Kidney disease affects 1 in 10 Canadians and yet, for decades, research into new treatments and therapies has been chronically underfunded.

“Kidney disease is underappreciated as a major public health problem in Canada and worldwide,” explains Dr. Adeera Levin, Head of Nephrology at the University of British Columbia. “As a consequence, funding and research is lacking, so we are behind in terms of being able to offer patients novel and exciting therapies.”

For many years, kidney researchers have laboured to improve outcomes for Canadian patients, all with little in the way of funding or recognition. But finally, that is beginning to change. Listening, Learning, Leading: Canadians Seeking Solutions and Innovations to Overcome Chronic Kidney Disease (Can-SOLVE CKD) is a massive kidney disease research network of which Dr. Levin is a principal investigator; the network is funded by government and over 30 partners, including The Kidney Foundation of Canada. Can-SOLVE CKD’s core mission is to promote new kidney disease research that is fundamentally patient-focused. To that end, the 18 projects currently under the Can-SOLVE CKD umbrella were all chosen by kidney disease patients in prioritization seminars, and all feature patient advisory panels as a core part of their ongoing direction.

“It just makes sense to have the people who will be most affected by the outcomes be involved in the research,” says Elisabeth Fowler,  National Director of Research at The Kidney Foundation of Canada. “The researchers I have spoken to tell me that they find this very helpful not just because it reminds them why they are doing what they are doing, but because it provides them with a new perspective to help them look at their research in a different way.”

Not just new research, but new researchers

Of course, while directly funding and promoting research into kidney disease is incalculably valuable, it will all be for naught if Canada doesn’t have a cadre of top-notch kidney disease specialists able and willing to undertake this research. Enter the Kidney Research Scientist Core Education and National Training Program (KRESCENT), a unique training initiative that encourages investigators to pursue kidney disease research and provides support and education for those who do. After 10 years into their mission, a retrospective of KRESCENT’s achievements paints a dramatic picture of success.

“KRESCENT is a capacity-building program that trains new investigators early in their careers, providing salary support as well as mentorship and a curriculum,” says Fowler. “In the first 10 years, there were 72 graduates through the program and 79 percent of them went on to get funding from the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), which is really impressive when you consider that the normal success rate for CIHR funding is very low. Compared to their peers, they had twice as many publications, they had more international collaboration, they’re much more multi-disciplinary, and their papers are more highly cited. What’s more, 90 percent of graduates credit the KRESCENT program with having contributed to their success.”

With training programs like KRESCENT feeding into research programs like Can-SOLVE CKD, Canada is beginning to invest in new innovations in the treatment of kidney disease that will directly help millions of Canadians. The research ranges from exploring dialysis alternatives to the question of providing equal care in First Nations communities to the interplay between kidney disease and rare diseases. This is vital research that has gone too long undone.

The best news is that, despite decades spent underappreciated, Canada’s kidney disease researchers are proving ready and eager to take this opportunity to show what they’ve got. “One thing about kidney disease in Canada is that it’s very much a team sport,” says Dr. Levin. “A lot of us have been working together for a very long time. It’s very exciting to see where we can now go with this amount of dedicated funding, and we’re really good at using our money wisely because we’ve never had a lot of it before.”