Israeli hope for kidney disease

It’s been decades since Dr. Karl Skorecki did his medical training at what is now called Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Boston teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, but he still vividly recalls the patients with kidney disease he met there.

He remembers their names, their faces, their suffering. He also remembers the question he began asking, one that has guided his career ever since: Why are there so many young black men and women with kidney disease? 

“The answers I was given were often very general and not precise: lifestyle, socioeconomic issues, and partly that’s true. But it seemed to me there was more going on,” the son of Holocaust survivors said. 

Today, Skorecki has come a long way in answering that question. As the director of medical and research development and director emeritus of nephrology at Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, Israel, he heads a team that has pinpointed a genetic variant predisposing many people of Sub-Saharan African descent to kidney disease. He said his department was one of two research teams in the world to first pinpoint the mutation.

African-Americans account for 32 percent of people with kidney failure in the United States, though they only make up about 13 percent of the population. They also are nearly four times as likely as Caucasians to develop kidney failure, according to the National Kidney Disease Education Program.

“That’s not a minor difference,” Skorecki said. “That’s a striking difference, and one that begs to be resolved.”

This devout Jewish doctor is on a mission to educate African-Americans about the genetic risk they face and much more. He also wants to raise millions to continue research as his team tries to discover what external factors — viral, toxins, etc. — might trigger the disease in people with the mutation. He’s also trying to understand the mechanism by which the mutation leaves the kidneys vulnerable and find a way to stem that vulnerability with medicine, perhaps leading to a vaccine or drug.

To this end, he traveled across the United States earlier this year, speaking with African-American physicians, civic leaders, pastors and celebrities. He also spoke at a musical fundraiser that took place Aug. 22-25 on Massachusetts’ Martha’s Vineyard that featured artists Natalie Cole and Smokey Robinson.

When Skorecki visited Los Angeles in May, the chattering diners at the Post & Beam restaurant in Baldwin Hills grew silent. About 20 African-American clergymen turned to look at the tall, earnest-looking man who sat before them wearing a kippah, curious to hear the message this stranger had traveled halfway around the world to bring them. 

As Skorecki spoke, many heads in the audience began nodding. Yes, they quietly agreed, kidney disease has long plagued the black community.

“I think we’re on the verge of making a real difference. Something real and important on something that’s responsible for a lot of human suffering,” he told them.

The doctor outlined his experiences and how they ultimately led him and his team to the AP0L1 variant.

“I felt, all these years, driven to try to work with this problem,” Skorecki said. “Now, it’s time to turn scientific discovery into something that people will actually benefit from.”

The doctor said his reason for addressing the clergymen was so they could help spread the word about his research to their congregations. 

For Barry Greene, senior pastor and teacher at St. Matthew Tabernacle of Praise Church in Baldwin Hills, Skorecki’s message hit particularly close to home. Many people in his congregation have kidney disease, and a good friend of his recently died from it, he said. 

“So many people need information about their health and wellness,” Greene said. “You’re always praying for somebody who has some kind of physical ailment.”

The Rev. Marguerite Phillips of Holman United Methodist Church on West Adams Boulevard, who also knows many people affected by kidney disease, said Skorecki’s talk made her feel more optimistic for the future.

“It’s wonderful to know there are specialists working in this area,” she said. 

No one seemed to notice — or, at least, care — that Skorecki is a Canadian living in Israel focusing on an issue affecting African-Americans.

“We’re all made of the same material. It doesn’t matter what race, nationality, religion or creed,” said Robert Bolden, pastor at Crenshaw Christian Center. “We all have kidneys, and kidneys are only one color.”

Skorecki said he grew up with a keen awareness of the need to do good. His parents immigrated to Canada from Poland in the 1950s, and they spoke to him frequently about both the horrors they experienced and the acts of kindness that helped them survive the Holocaust.

“They saw how horrible humanity can be — my mother lost her entire family — but she would tell me about the occasions in which non-Jews risked their lives to hide her or to give her a piece of bread,” he recalled. “You have to do good even in the face of evil and suffering. And that’s something that resonates from my parents.”

The professor’s upbringing and religious convictions also influenced his decision to move from Toronto to Israel in 1995 with his wife, Linda, and five children. 

“Jewish people need a homeland, and the way to support that is to be there if you can,” he said.