Nina Jones_CRC headshot
Prof. Nina Jones

One in 10 Canadians has kidney disease, and that number is growing as rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity continue to climb. University of Guelph professor Nina Jones hopes her research will ultimately stem that rise through better treatment and diagnosis of what she calls the “silent killer.”

Jones researches the molecular “sieve” that enables a healthy kidney to filter waste from your blood and regulate water in your body.

By learning more about what leads the organ to fail, she aims to help improve tests allowing doctors to detect and treat the disease earlier or more effectively.

Jones, a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, recently received a five-year grant worth almost $750,000 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to support her research.

She studies podocytes, the cells responsible for that filtering activity in the kidney.

Viewed under the microscope, a podocyte resembles an octopus. Its arms, called processes, wrap around the blood-filtering capillaries in the kidney.

In a healthy organ, those arms hold their shape and position with an inner tent pole arrangement of structural proteins, says Jones.

Between the arms is a webbing of nephrin proteins where the business of sieving waste goes on. In kidney disease, that webbing breaks down. The podocyte loses its filtering ability and albumin protein leaks from blood vessels.

Jones studies what happens when signalling pathways in the cell go awry. Those pathways normally allow molecules in the cell to bind and release like Lego blocks.

“We look at how the sieve is kept intact and how changes in signalling affect how that sieve gets leaky,” says Jones, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Eukaryotic Cellular Signalling.

In congenital kidney disease, some children are born unable to make critical nephrin proteins. Their only cure is a kidney transplant.

Today, more Canadians are developing kidney disease later in life. Jones hopes her work will help more of these patients.

That increase might be caused by changes to genes or their expression. Viruses and bacteria can affect kidney function. Other factors include aging, as well as diabetes and hypertension linked to rising obesity rates.

“It’s a chronic public health issue,” says Jones.

With the new CIHR funding, she hopes to find ways to slow down disease progression.

She envisions a diagnostic test – likely a biopsy – used by a doctor to screen patients for levels of particular proteins or malfunctioning of signalling pathways.

Catch the disease earlier, and patients have a better prognosis, says Jones.

“Kidney disease is the silent killer,” she says. By the time many patients are diagnosed – the telling sign is abnormal amounts of protein in urine – it’s too late. “At that point, your kidney is already damaged.”

She’s also exploring diet to prevent or mitigate the disease.

Two years ago, she received provincial funding to study the effects of eating soy on kidney health. The results of that study with Prof. Roger Moorehead, Department of Biomedical Sciences, suggest that soy protein helps protect kidney function, especially the workings of that molecular sieve.

Persuading people to consume more soy than animal protein may be a hard sell, she says. She has a soy smoothie for breakfast and includes soy in her family’s meals a couple of times a week. “Through my research, I’ve become more aware of the impact of lifestyle choices.”

Jones is the only U of G researcher funded by the Kidney Foundation of Canada (KFOC). Earlier this year, KFOC recognized her outreach activities with an outstanding community partner award.

Each year, she and her lab members — about 12 people in all — take part in the annual Guelph Kidney Walk held in September.

“Outreach allows us to connect with people our research will ultimately impact. It allows us to understand the patient perspective. It reminds us of why we’re doing the research we’re doing.”