A University of Hawaii Manoa researcher is developing ways to make earlier detection of kidney disease possible.
Kevin Bennett, associate professor and associate chair of UH Manoa’s biology department, is focused on preclinical, technology-based research and developing new detection methods.
The National Institute of Health has awarded grants totaling roughly $3 million to UH and the University of Virginia to detect kidney disease earlier by using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, scans.
Virginia will receive about half of that funding for clinical work and research. Jennifer Charlton, UV’s project leader, works with children and will research whether maternal factors, such as giving birth to premature babies, will impact a child’s kidney function, Bennett said.
Bennett said by the time kidney disease can be detected in a urine sample, it’s often progressed quite far.
“If they detect a problem with the kidney, there’s really a problem with the kidney,” he said.
Bennett has developed a contrast agent that highlights the extent of damage to tiny units within the kidney on an MRI scan.
He’s now working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on moving forward with pre-clinical testing.
The research is particularly vital for Hawaii, where there is a very high prevalence of kidney disease.
One out of every seven Hawaii residents is fighting chronic kidney disease. That’s 30 percent higher than the national average. Plus, Asians and Pacific Islanders are two to four times more likely to reach end-stage kidney disease.
Almost 90 percent of Hawaii’s kidney patients on dialysis were of Asian or Pacific Island descent, according to a 2012 research paper. Japanese, Filipino and Native Hawaiian patients made up the bulk of patients on dialysis in the state.
Glen Hayashida, National Kidney Foundation of Hawaii president and CEO, said a disproportionate number of Native Hawaiians receive dialysis in Hawaii.
“Kidney disease and kidney failure is highly prevalent in ethnic minorities in general,” Hayashida said. “The highest (percentage of patients) would be your native population, so here in Hawaii it’s the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population. And on the mainland, it’s the Native American population.”
He said researchers are focused on figuring out why ethnic minorities are more susceptible to kidney disease. It could be that their genetics are incompatible with the diet and lack of exercise associated with the Western lifestyle.
The foundation is currently working with primary care physicians to identify kidney disease earlier instead of focusing on patients with late-stage kidney disease.
This 3-D construction of a kidney was made using data provided by Bennett. The white dots represent glomeruli, which can indicate kidney damage.
Bennett, who teaches two classes at UH Manoa, dedicates the rest of his time to research. Undergraduate and graduate-level students have also contributed t0 his research.
The university recently purchased a $1 million preclinical MRI machine — the first of its kind in the state — that will be up and running in two weeks, Bennett said.
The machine, which is much smaller than a normal MRI, will be used to detect evidence of kidney disease in donated human organs ineligible for transplant use and live animals.
In MRI machines, liquid helium essentially serves a cooling mechanism. UH’s machine, which recycles helium, saves the university about $50,000 per year on shipping and material costs.
That machine was at the center of a labor dispute in recent years.
In his 2012 hire letter, Bennett was promised the MRI machine for his research. But the project stalled after he moved his family to the islands from Arizona State University.
In 2015, Kristin Kumashiro, the interim College of Natural Sciences dean, cancelled his project, saying UH could no longer afford the machine. Kumashiro was eventually replaced.
Bennett said the current dean, Loek Helminck, and university administration are supportive of the project.
“Five years and a lawsuit, it does tremendous things,” he said.
On a Tuesday morning at UH Manoa’s Biomedical Science building, a technician inside a new $500,000 facility works to assemble the MRI machine.
In a nearby room, Bennett manipulates 3-D photos of a healthy kidney using specialized computer software. To his left are 3-D printers that can create models of kidneys.
Kidneys are composed of tiny units called nephrons, which process and filter body fluids, regulating what goes back into the body and what becomes waste.
On Bennett’s computer screen, he points to black spots throughout the kidney. Those areas stand out because of a unique contrast agent, which highlights certain items in medical imaging, that he developed.
Bennett’s contrast agent sticks to the glomerulus, an even smaller part of the nephron that filters blood. People are born with a certain number of glomeruli — some have more, others less. The fewer or larger the glomeruli as people age, the worse the potential for kidney damage.
Scientists may be able track these changes via MRI scans throughout the course of a patient’s disease, thanks to this new contrast agent.
Since the MRI machine was purchased with UH’s own money, the federal funding will mostly be spent on personnel.
While the machine was bought primarily for use in Bennett’s research, he said about 30 other faculty members have already reached out to see if their students can get access. In a few months, Bennett believes he can slowly start allowing others to use the technology.
The machine could benefit Hawaii’s entire research community, he said.
It’s able to scan soft tissue and hard tissue, such as bone. In addition to disease detection, Bennett said the MRI machine can be used for drug testing, brain scans or even scanning coral.
Most major research universities have a similar machine, Bennett said, and UH Manoa is looking into launching a bio-imaging program for undergraduate and graduate students.
“That would be a draw (for students). There’s a lot of jobs in that area right now,” Bennett said. “Most places don’t have resources like this for undergrads.”