Imagine what would happen if our kidneys stopped working, if our bodies were no longer able to filter toxins. Unfortunately, this is reality for people living with polycystic kidney disease (PKD).
In PKD, cysts appear on the kidneys. The cysts interfere with normal kidney function, causing (among other symptoms) increased blood pressure and a build-up of toxins. The abnormal cyst formation is due to a mutation in the polycystin producing genes (PKD1 and PKD2). In some forms of the disease, the mutations are passed through each generation, making PKD the most prevalent hereditary disease in the world.
There is no long term cure for PKD. Current therapies can only ease the symptoms. Over the last year and a half, however, I have been trialing the use of new drugs which might delay cystic growth and be a potential treatment for PKD.
My masters research takes an interesting approach to the issue. I’m looking for drugs that can cause changes in gene and protein expression. These drugs are able to cause particular cells to die, disrupt the action of a known PKD-associated protein and modify the global expression of genes. I measure the effectiveness of the drugs by testing them on spheroid forming kidney tubule cells. This allows me to define changes in cyst size. Through my research I hope to discover a more appropriate means of treating cyst growth, as well as to further understand the mechanisms which cause kidney cells to become cystic in individuals who are affected by PKD.
I’ve met many kinds of people through my research, and attended several exciting events. One was the recent Bake Your Thesis competition, organised by the University of Otago as part of the graduate research festival. Entrants had to produce a piece of baking which best represented their thesis.
For my entry I made two kidney-shaped cakes decorated in brown icing. One cake was covered with large cream and lemon curd-filled cysts, and the other with much smaller cysts surrounded by smarties to signify my novel drugs. The idea of the cysts being able to ooze pus both disgusted and fascinated onlookers – which was the intent, as I just wanted to have some fun with it.
I was pleasantly surprised when the judges showed interest in my entry, awarding me first prize. Yet what has been even more rewarding is the way my cakes introduced my research to a broader audience, opening up discussion from many perspectives about kidney disease, other related diseases, and potential therapies.
Lorissa McDougall is a Genetics Masters student carrying out research in the Department of Pathology, Dunedin School of Medicine, under the supervision of Professor Mike Eccles and Dr Cherie Stayner. She was the winner of the inaugural University of Otago Bake Your Thesis competition. Read how some of the other entrants cooked up their research ideas:
Images courtesy of Sharron Bennett.
Read more about kidney disease on Corpus.