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Justin Chun, MD, PhD

Award: KRESCENT Post-Doctoral New Investigators awards
Institution: University of Calgary
Year: 2020-2023

Study title: Precision Medicine in Glomerular Disease: Role for Lipid Droplets

Dr. Justin Chun is a nephrologist and Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary. He obtained his MSc (2004) and PhD (2009) in Cell Biology at the University of Alberta followed by a medical degree (2011), residency in internal medicine (2014) and fellowship in nephrology (2016) at the University of Calgary. He was inspired to become a clinician-basic scientist after working with amazing clinician-scientists, learning about the complexities of kidney diseases and witnessing the hardships faced by patients living with kidney disease. Throughout his clinical training, he continued with basic science research under the supervision of Dr. Daniel Muruve to study the NLRP3 inflammasome in kidney diseases including IgA nephropathy. He then moved to Boston to complete his KRESCENT fellowship (2016-2019) in the laboratory of Dr. Martin Pollak at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School where he learned new genetic approaches, trained to grow mini-kidneys called kidney organoids and discovered a role for lipid droplets in kidney disease. As the Assistant Director for the Precision Medicine in Nephrology Program at the University of Calgary, he is generating stem cells from patients for disease modelling and drug testing. His precision medicine, patient-oriented research program focuses on identifying biomarkers and therapies to improve patient care for diabetic kidney disease and glomerular diseases. He hopes that one day we will be able to grow functioning kidneys to replace dialysis.  

Lay Summary
Glomerular diseases can be caused by conditions that damage the filtering units of the kidney. Diabetic kidney disease (DKD) and IgA nephropathy (IgAN) are two examples of glomerular diseases that make up a large portion of patients with end stage kidney disease. The standard treatment for DKD, IgAN and other glomerular diseases include angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) which block the activity of angiotensin II (Ang II) to reduce kidney injury and protein spilling into the urine. Ang II is a hormone well known to be important for controlling blood pressure but it has other poorly understood effects on the kidney that are not related to lowering blood pressure. Recent studies have shown that with too much Ang II, the cells in the kidney can behave abnormally with excessive build-up of fat storage molecules called lipid droplets. Lipid droplet accumulation has been linked to diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart diseases, obesity and liver disease. There is now emerging evidence that lipid droplets have an important role in glomerular disease and blocking the activity of Ang II with losartan, an ARB, can prevent the build-up of lipid droplets in kidney cells. 

Dr. Chun is taking a precision medicine approach to study the role of lipid droplets in glomerular disease. He is applying cutting-edge, gene sequencing technologies and novel imaging approaches using patient kidney biopsy samples from a kidney biobank called the Biobank for the Molecular Classification of Kidney Disease (BMCKD) to use lipid droplets as a biomarker for predicting disease progression. Next, Dr. Chun and his team will be reprogramming blood from patients to DKD and IgAN to make "mini-kidneys" called kidney organoids to understand how lipid droplets can cause damage to kidney cells. He believes that therapies that can reduce the accumulation of lipid droplets will help treat glomerular diseases.