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