With pop star’s help, scientists try to protect kidneys from lupus

By Randy Dotinga

Kidneys — the human body’s filtration system — face a mighty task every minute of your life. On average, they process about 48 gallons of blood a day, enough liquid to fill more than 500 cans of soda.


The kidneys face a special strain when lupus enters the picture. The disease exposes them to rampaging immune cells with immense destructive power. As a result, about two-thirds of people with lupus, including pop star Selena Gomez — will develop a potentially fatal condition called lupus nephritis. Many will need dialysis or, like Ms. Gomez, a kidney transplant.

Now, in part thanks to the generosity of Ms. Gomez, researchers at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, are uncovering how lupus first wreaks havoc on the kidneys. Their goal: Use their newfound knowledge to develop ways to protect the kidneys and prevent inflammation that can lead to dialysis, kidney transplants and even death.

“We’re getting clues about how the damage occurs. Once we understand what’s going wrong, we can devise new therapies to help protect patients with lupus,” said Janos Peti-Peterdi, MD, PhD, a professor of physiology and neuroscience who leads a laboratory devoted to research into chronic kidney disease at the university.


Dr. Peti-Peterdi and his colleagues receive research funding from the Selena Gomez Fund for Lupus Re-search, which the singer created in 2016. Recently, the Puma footwear company, which works with Ms. Gomez, donated $100,000 to the fund.

Ms. Gomez, a 26-year-old singer and actress, is one of an estimated 1.5 million people with lupus in the United States. She underwent a harrowing but ultimately successful kidney transplant in 2017 to treat lupus nephritis.

Dr. Peti-Peterdi and his team have developed a new kind of body-scanning technology that allows them to study the inner workings of the kidney without needing to perform invasive surgery. They’re using multiphoton microscopy, which is similar to MRI and CT scans, to study animals as they develop a condition thats similar to lupus nephritis in humans.

“The high magnification allows us to zoom in and see individual kidney cells in a live animal,” he said. “We can watch as the filtering mechanism of the kidney deteriorates, allowing us to visually confirm and analyze what goes wrong within the kidney.”

Janos Peti-Peterdi, MD, PhD

Credit Ricardo Carrasco III/courtesy USC Keck School of Medicine

Credit: Chris Shinn/courtesy USC Keck School of Medicine

The researchers aren’t ready to test the technology on humans, and they won’t be prepared for that step for quite some time.

“We are still at the very beginning of the process,” Dr. Peti-Peterdi said. “Preclinical research takes a lot of years and requires a lot of funding. This is a process that will take 10-15 years.”

One goal is to develop a urine test that will help physicians understand who’s at the most danger of developing lupus nephritis. Physicians can then step in and take action before it’s too late.

Scientists also want to use the findings from their research to develop a way to protect the kidneys against damage from lupus. If the tissue and inner layers of blood vessels in the kidneys can be strengthened, Dr. Peti-Peterdi said, the organs won’t be as vulnerable to the immune cells that tag along with the blood that rushes through at every moment.

The mission, in other words, is armor for the kidneys. And, if all goes well, it offers hope for people with lupus.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance reporter for MDedge News.