Take 10

Dr. Jonathan Himmelfarb, UW Professor of Medicine, Director of the Kidney Research Institute, and the Joseph W. Eschbach Endowed Chair in Kidney Research, spent a few minutes discussing his current work at the Kidney Research Institute, sharing a bit about his interests, and revealing his role models!

Can you tell us about the Kidney-on-a-Chip Project?

Jonathan Himmelfarb

The Kidney-on-a-Chip Project is designed to expedite the development of safe and effective drugs for the treatment of kidney diseases. Also, we will be able to learn more about the mechanisms by which drugs and environmental exposures can harm the kidney. 

It is a project in which we are using human kidney cells and we grow them onto microphysiological devices, or platforms, using microfluidics, so that cells outside of the body recapitulate the environment similar to what they would be in inside the body, with the same architecture, and the same kind of flows and pressures. The kidney cells  have more fidelity to what they would be like in the body, so we can test different drugs and see their effects on important kidney cells, and hopefully learn more about different kidney diseases, and be able to model them, and learn about potential therapies for kidney diseases.

The Kidney-on-a-Chip is being sent to the International Space Station. How is that going to aid in your research?

Sending the chip to space is one aspect of our overall program related to the human Kidney-on-a-Chip Project. The idea is to understand how the loss of gravity, or what is called microgravity, in space gives cues to the cells for how to behave. Understanding these cues might also teach us something about how the kidney functions on earth, as well as in space, by understanding how gravity affects the polarity of the cell. We’ll also learn something about kidney stones. Astronauts are at increased risk for kidney stones in space, so we may be able to model that condition as well and hopefully discover novel treatments for kidney stones and osteoporosis. The Kidney-on-a-Chip will be in space for a couple of weeks. The experiments take about a week or two. 

What do you envision for the next 5 years of kidney research? Or do the outcomes take much longer to reveal themselves?

I envision that in 5 years our teams will have made a significant impact. First of all, in the development of safe and effective therapeutics for the treatment of kidney disease, and the molecular characterization and understanding of multiple kidney diseases. Then of course, with our Center for Dialysis Innovation (CDI), where we are developing new therapies for people whose kidney disease has progressed to irreversible kidney failure.

It is inspiring that your work could help so many people. Is that what keeps you motivated?

We try to make a difference, and hope that at the end of the day we have contributed to a greater effort. We’ve been part of a community that advances the care of people living with kidney disease. What is inspirational is to hear the stories of people living with kidney disease, and the challenges and the courage that people have, and the resoluteness with which they have to confront this serious medical problem that is often chronic, and is going to affect the rest of their lives.

How did you become interested in Nephrology?

Some people’s careers travel in a straight line, from Point A to Point B. I have not been one of those people. It was not what I had planned all along, to be a Nephrologist. In college I studied English and American Literature. It was late in my undergraduate studies that I came around to the idea of going to medical school. The left brain and the right brain are both useful in medicine.

I got interested in kidney disease as a medical resident, seeing the complexity, and seeing how much we didn’t understand, and the intensity by which kidney disease affects patients.  The ups and downs of patient journeys, and vicissitudes experienced over an extended period of time attracted me; the intensity, the complexity of the challenge.

Your research is interesting and probably all encompassing. If you could step back and do something other than kidney research, what would it be?

Sit by a beach and read a good book.

What are you currently reading?

Greek tragedies; Aeschylus and Sophocles at the moment.

You appreciate the finer things; art, good food, wine?

Maybe not as much as some of the Foodies that we have in Seattle, but yes, I like good food. It is nice to live by the ocean and have access to great seafood in Seattle, and great Pacific Northwest wines as well. A great day would be getting out on the water in a boat, listening to good music, hanging out with good friends, a nice glass of wine. Keep life simple. Life is good!

Where are you from originally?

I’m originally from a town in Massachusetts called Marblehead, about 20 miles north of Boston. But we lived in Maine for about 20 years before coming to Seattle. There are some similarities between Maine and Seattle; the islands and the ferries, and things of that sort. We raised our family in Maine; we were empty-nesters when we moved here 9 years ago.

Is there any place in the world you would particularly like to see or spend time?

A nice island somewhere, very remote, with beautiful beaches. Some place near the ocean, with a book. Or, sailing around the world.

If you could magically gain a new ability overnight, what would it be?

Surfing! To stay up on the board, surrounded by the curl of the wave, and shoot out at the end. I recently read a book called Barbarian Days, about a surfer’s life.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment so far in your life?

Our three kids. One is a medical intern at Tulane University, one is an architect in Brussels, Belgium, and one is a project manager for at-risk youth in Boston, MA. They are all doing interesting things, and they are all fiercely independent, amazing people.

Do you have a life philosophy?

Enjoy every day. Every day is a good day. Live in the moment.

Who are your role models?

I use Bill Belichick and Darth Vader as role models for directing the Kidney Research institute!