Ken Kleinberg noticed something was wrong during a work trip to the South of France in the late 1990s. The veteran talent lawyer cut his trip short to seek medical treatment, with no clue that his diagnosis would be the beginning of a decades-long journey to eradicate kidney disease. “I had taken on a lot of weight and my body was sort of pudgy,” Kleinberg recalls. “Each day that went by, I was getting more bloated and I could tell that I was retaining fluid. So, I returned to Los Angeles as rapidly as I could.”
His doctor recommended seeing a kidney specialist, but didn’t say much more than that. Then came a kidney biopsy and a series of other tests. The diagnosis was minimal change disease, a condition that impacts kidney function. As the illness progressed, Kleinberg was facing renal failure and underwent dialysis three times a week for six years before receiving a kidney transplant in 2007.
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During his time in the hospital he met Dr. Vito Campese, then the head of the nephrology department at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. The two discussed the lack of information available and general dearth of kidney-related research, and it struck a chord in Kleinberg. In 2002, they launched the University Kidney Research Organization. Through a partnership with USC, the USC/UKRO Kidney Research Center opened in September 2015.
Fast-forward to 2022 and researchers, led by Zhongwei Li and Andy McMahon, are developing a synthetic kidney thanks to a grant from the National Institutes of Health. They’ve successfully transplanted kidneys built with stem cells into mice and, if they can secure the funding, the next step is to begin human clinical trials.
For THR‘s annual philanthropy spotlight, Kleinberg spoke about his goal to “make kidney disease as important a crusade as cancer or heart disease.”
How did this all start?
During the time that I encountered this malady I was introduced to a wonderful physician, Dr. Vito Campese at USC. I asked him, “What is the story with this?” He said, “It’s been identified in medical literature for a very long time, but we don’t know what causes it.” It was kind of a shock to hear that. There were a few places where some kidney disease research was conducted, but essentially it was not something like cancer or AIDS or heart disease where there were extensive study centers and research. While dialysis is a replacement for normal kidney function, it only effectively provides about 15 percent of conventional filtration and processing that the kidneys do when they’re functioning correctly. So, Vito and I talked about the need to do better and to establish some kind of kidney research center.
What are some of the latest things that the USC/UKRO has accomplished?
The most exciting things right now are the developments relating to the synthetic kidney, meaning a kidney that is made out of organic natural components, unlike something that’s artificial. USC has a number of brilliant researchers, including Andy McMahon and Zhongwei Li, who are among the most prominent stem cell researchers in the world. A transplantable organic synthetic kidney would be an enormous advancement because there are so many people [waiting for] a transplant. The ability to essentially manufacture synthetic kidneys is an absolutely astonishing medical breakthrough. It’s been created. The part that remains to be done is human transplantation as a result of clinical research, which will take tens of millions of dollars to complete.
What has made you want to stay actively involved over the years, instead of just donating money?
Being a patient. The number of people impacted by kidney disease is very, very great. The suffering that kidney disease exacts upon people is absolutely shocking. Other diseases have been controlled through research, most especially AIDS, which used to be a fatal disease and is now largely a chronic disease. The synthetic kidney is somewhere between a treatment for chronic illness and a cure. It would revolutionize science and affect millions of people around the world who are struggling with kidney failure. Dialysis is not a necessarily a permanent solution. People usually don’t live a normal life with dialysis, and many people expire at an earlier age than would otherwise be the case, and they suffer in the process.
Is there anything that you especially want people in our community to know at this point?
What I have learned in the course of my illness is that it’s terribly important to combine resources in the private sector and the public sector to find solutions to diseases. We have a need for tens of millions of dollars to advance the research from the stage of using animals to a human transplant. I think research in the field of kidney disease should become a national medical priority, which has yet to happen, but we’re moving in that direction.
We have the intellectual firepower at USC and, if we can get sufficient funding, we would be doing ourselves and our families and our country and our world a big favor. I’m hoping to energize the entertainment community to provide the resources and to galvanize public support for research into kidney disease.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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