A Race-Free Approach to Diagnosing Chronic Kidney Disease
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Race has a long and tortured history in America. Though great strides have been made through the work of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to build an equal and just society for all, we still have more work to do, as race continues to factor into American life where it shouldn’t. A medical case in point is a common diagnostic tool for chronic kidney disease (CKD), a condition that affects one in seven American adults and causes a gradual weakening of the kidneys that, for some, will lead to renal failure.
The diagnostic tool is a medical algorithm called estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR). It involves getting a blood test that measures how well the kidneys filter out a common waste product from the blood and adding in other personal factors to score how well a person’s kidneys are working. Among those factors is whether a person is Black. However, race is a complicated construct that incorporates components that go well beyond biological and genetic factors to social and cultural issues. The concern is that by lumping together Black people, the algorithm lacks diagnostic precision for individuals and could contribute to racial disparities in healthcare delivery—or even runs the risk of reifying race in a way that suggests more biological significance than it deserves.
That’s why I was pleased recently to see the results of two NIH-supported studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine that suggest a way to take race out of the kidney disease equation [1, 2]. The approach involves a new equation that swaps out one blood test for another and doesn’t ask about race.
For a variety of reasons, including socioeconomic issues and access to healthcare, CKD disproportionately affects the Black community. In fact, Blacks with the condition are also almost four times more likely than whites to develop kidney failure. That’s why Blacks with CKD must visit their doctors regularly to monitor their kidney function, and often that visit involves eGFR.
The blood test used in eGFR measures creatinine, a waste product produced from muscle. For about the past 20 years, a few points have been automatically added to the score of African Americans, based on data showing that adults who identify as Black, on average, have a higher baseline level of circulating creatinine. But adjusting the score upward toward normal function runs the risk of making the kidneys seem a bit healthier than they really are and delaying life-preserving dialysis or getting on a transplant list.
A team led by Chi-yuan Hsu, University of California, San Francisco, took a closer look at the current eGFR calculations. The researchers used long-term data from the Chronic Renal Insufficiency Cohort (CRIC) Study, an NIH-supported prospective, observational study of nearly 4,000 racially and ethnically diverse patients with CKD in the U.S. The study design specified that about 40 percent of its participants should identify as Black.
To look for race-free ways to measure kidney function, the researchers randomly selected more than 1,400 of the study’s participants to undergo a procedure that allows kidney function to be measured directly instead of being estimated based on blood tests. The goal was to develop an accurate approach to estimating GFR, the rate of fluid flow through the kidneys, from blood test results that didn’t rely on race.
Their studies showed that simply omitting race from the equation would underestimate GFR in Black study participants. The best solution, they found, was to calculate eGFR based on cystatin C, a small protein that the kidneys filter from the blood, in place of the standard creatinine. Estimation of GFR using cystatin C generated similarly accurate results but without the need to factor in race.
The second NIH-supported study led by Lesley Inker, Tufts Medical Center, Boston, MA, came to similar conclusions. They set out to develop new equations without race using data from several prior studies. They then compared the accuracy of their new eGFR equations to measured GFR in a validation set of 12 other studies, including about 4,000 participants.
Their findings show that currently used equations that include race, sex, and age overestimated measured GFR in Black Americans. However, taking race out of the equation without other adjustments underestimated measured GFR in Black people. Equations including both creatinine and cystatin C, but omitting race, were more accurate. The new equations also led to smaller estimated differences between Black and non-Black study participants.
The hope is that these findings will build momentum toward widespread adoption of cystatin C for estimating GFR. Already, a national task force has recommended immediate implementation of a new diagnostic equation that eliminates race and called for national efforts to increase the routine and timely measurement of cystatin C . This will require a sea change in the standard measurements of blood chemistries in clinical and hospital labs—where creatinine is routinely measured, but cystatin C is not. As these findings are implemented into routine clinical care, let’s hope they’ll reduce health disparities by leading to more accurate and timely diagnosis, supporting the goals of precision health and encouraging treatment of CKD for all people, regardless of their race.
 Race, genetic ancestry, and estimating kidney function in CKD. Hsu CY, Yang W, Parikh RV, Anderson AH, Chen TK, Cohen DL, He J, Mohanty MJ, Lash JP, Mills KT, Muiru AN, Parsa A, Saunders MR, Shafi T, Townsend RR, Waikar SS, Wang J, Wolf M, Tan TC, Feldman HI, Go AS; CRIC Study Investigators. N Engl J Med. 2021 Sep 23.
 New creatinine- and cystatin C-based equations to estimate GFR without race. Inker LA, Eneanya ND, Coresh J, Tighiouart H, Wang D, Sang Y, Crews DC, Doria A, Estrella MM, Froissart M, Grams ME, Greene T, Grubb A, Gudnason V, Gutiérrez OM, Kalil R, Karger AB, Mauer M, Navis G, Nelson RG, Poggio ED, Rodby R, Rossing P, Rule AD, Selvin E, Seegmiller JC, Shlipak MG, Torres VE, Yang W, Ballew SH,Couture SJ, Powe NR, Levey AS; Chronic Kidney Disease Epidemiology Collaboration. N Engl J Med. 2021 Sep 23.
 A unifying approach for GFR estimation: recommendations of the NKF-ASN Task Force on Reassessing the Inclusion of Race in Diagnosing Kidney Disease. Delgado C, Baweja M, Crews DC, Eneanya ND, Gadegbeku CA, Inker LA, Mendu ML, Miller WG, Moxey-Mims MM, Roberts GV, St Peter WL, Warfield C, Powe NR. Am J Kidney Dis. 2021 Sep 22:S0272-6386(21)00828-3.
Chronic Kidney Disease (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)
Explaining Your Kidney Test Results: A Tool for Clinical Use (NIDDK)
Chronic Renal Insufficiency Cohort Study
Chi-yuan Hsu (University of California, San Francisco)
Lesley Inker (Tufts Medical Center, Boston)
NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
An ‘Off-the-Shelf’ Replacement for Damaged Blood Vessels?
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
The object in the image above might look like an ordinary plastic tube. But this tube is neither plastic nor ordinary. It’s a bioengineered replacement human blood vessel that could one day benefit people who receive kidney dialysis or undergo coronary bypass surgery.
It’s called a human acellular vessel (HAV), and an NIH-funded team, led by Heather Prichard, Humacyte Inc., Durham, NC, grows these acellular vessels. They can run up to about 16-inches long with a diameter of 0.2 inches, which is well within the range of a human blood vessel.
Prichard and team start with a lightweight and biodegradable polymer mesh. They then seed the mesh scaffold with cells taken from human donor tissue within a 3D bioreactor system in the lab. The system is specially designed to provide nutrients and mechanical pulsations similar to those present in an intact human circulatory system.
After incubating the growing vessels for eight weeks, the researchers remove all the living cells, leaving behind mostly human collagen, a fibrous protein and major structural component of a blood vessel wall. It forms a non-living, replacement vessel that retains the physical and mechanical integrity of a human blood vessel. But, because these HAVs don’t have cells, they potentially can be surgically implanted into any human patient without risk of an immune reaction.
As reported recently in Science Translational Medicine, the best part is what happens after an HAV is implanted into the body . The patient’s own cells infiltrate the HAVs. Over the course of many weeks, these cells produce multiple layers of living tissue to transform the acellular HAV into a functional, living blood vessel.
So far, HAVs have been tested in more than 240 people with end-stage kidney failure. The HAVs were implanted into the upper arms of participants and remained there from 16 to 200 weeks while these patients underwent dialysis three times per week to filter waste products from their blood. The early results indicate these bioengineered blood vessels were safe and fully functional. More research, though, will be needed to ensure that’s indeed the case.
For people who receive kidney dialysis, doctors now typically access the vasculature by linking an artery to a vein under the skin of the arm, making an “AV fistula.” But doctors can also use the HAV tube to make the needed connection.
What’s potentially game changing about HAVs is they offer the same “off-the-shelf” ease of a plastic tube but with the advantages of living tissue. Those advantages include the ability to fight infection and self-heal from the inevitable injury that comes with repeated needle pokes.
Though most of the work to date has focused on people undergoing kidney dialysis, an ongoing clinical trial is testing the potential of HAVs to improve blood flow when surgically implanted into the legs of patients with peripheral arterial disease . Prichard also sees potential for HAVs in heart surgery. For example, HAVs might be useful during coronary bypass surgery to repair a narrowed or blocked blood vessel. They could also be used to replace blood vessels damaged or missing due to congenital defects or traumatic injuries. Not bad for an object that looks like an ordinary plastic tube.
 Bioengineered human acellular vessels recellularize and evolve into living blood vessels after human implantation. Kirkton RD, Santiago-Maysonet M, Lawson JH, Tente WE, Dahl SLM, Niklason LE, Prichard HL. Sci Transl Med. 2019 Mar 27;11(485).
 Kidney Disease Statistics for the United States. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH
 Humacyte’s HAV for Femoro-Popliteal Bypass in Patients With PAD. Clinicaltrials.gov
Safety and Efficacy of a Vascular Prosthesis for Hemodialysis Access in Patients With End-Stage Renal Disease (ClinicalTrials.Gov)
Hemodialysis (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)
Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine (National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering/NIH)
Humacyte (Durham, NC)
NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute