Bert Kinsey lab produces winner of a Harrison Undergraduate Research Award Nephrology

Excerpted from UVA Today | March 17, 2014 | Matt Kelly

  U.Va. undergraduate researcher Kristen Whalen is exploring the mechanisms of kidney cells.  (Photo: Dan Addison)

U.Va. undergraduate researcher Kristen Whalen is exploring the mechanisms of kidney cells.            (Photo: Dan Addison)

The University of Virginia Faculty Senate and Center for Undergraduate Excellence recently announced the recipients of the 2014 Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards. To mark the announcement, UVA Today looks back at what some of the 2013 grantees have learned in the past year.

University of Virginia undergraduate researcher Kristen Whalen is exploring kidney cells to see if they can protect themselves, which could be a breakthrough in assisting kidneys in surviving injury and the side effects of treatments for diseases elsewhere in the body.

Whalen, 21, of Suffolk, a fourth-year biology major, received a Harrison Undergraduate Research Grant to explore the mechanisms of acute kidney injury, specifically the role of “programmed death 1,” or PD-1, and PD-1 ligands, cell surface molecules that interact with PD-1 on tubular epithelial cells.

“We are investigating the mechanisms in which kidney cells interact with immune system cells,” Whelan said. “Once we figure out the specific mechanisms, we hope to manipulate these interactions to protect the kidney cells from acute kidney injury.”

Acute kidney injury is a common complication, affecting about one in five hospital patients. It often increases their length of stay, morbidity and mortality. There are currently no FDA-approved drugs that prevent acute kidney injury. Her lab’s long-term goal is to develop novel therapeutic agents that prevent and treat the condition.

The Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards program funds undergraduate research projects for one year. Approximately 40 awards of up to $3,000 each are granted on a competitive basis to first-, second- and third-year undergraduate students. Students who receive the awards work closely with a faculty mentor on their research.

“Our lab hypothesizes that these cell surface proteins protect the kidney from toxic drugs and a lack of oxygen by sending out pro-survival signals into tubular epithelial cells of the kidney,” Whalen said. “If PD-1 and PD-1 ligands provide kidney cells with pro-survival signals, this would open up new lines of investigation into different ways to promote this pathway in vivo to protect against acute kidney injury.”

Whalen’s faculty mentor, Gilbert R. Kinsey, an assistant professor in the School of Medicine’s Division of Nephrology and the Center for Immunity, Inflammation and Regenerative Medicine, said the laboratory identified a protein, PD-L1, that plays a protective role in kidney injury.

“The way the PD-L1 works to protect the kidney is currently unknown and forms the basis of Kristen’s project,” Kinsey said. “We know that kidney cells express PD-L1 at a low level under normal conditions and that they up-regulate PD-L1 expression during stress. Kristen is working with Kasia Jobin, a research assistant in the lab, to engineer kidney cells that express different amounts of PD-L1 on their surface – none, intermediate and very high levels of PD-L1 – so that we can investigate the differences in these cells’ responses to the types of stress that lead to kidney failure.”

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