HOPE for HEALING
Some people are born to be doctors, but János Peti-Peterdi’s destiny was much more specific. “My fate—to perform kidney research—was determined before I was born,” says the renowned kidney disease expert and renal physiologist. From childhood, he was driven to find a cure for chronic kidney disease—the life-threatening condition that afflicted his mother, Erzsébet Vármos.
Their story begins in the family home in Csurgó, Hungary, where his mother caught strep throat as a teenager. Unfortunately the complications went undetected and untreated, leading to severe kidney damage.
“It’s a miracle she survived,” says Peti-Peterdi, a professor of physiology and biophysics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Even my birth was a miracle.”
Newly married and expecting her first child, his mother was admitted to the regional hospital with acute kidney disease. Doctors terminated her pregnancy and offered bleak hope for recovery.
“They were actually running human experiments on her in the basement,” says her son, his voice rising with indignation. Dialysis hadn’t reached Hungary yet in the early 1960s, and there were no known therapies for kidney failure. But the thought of physicians exposing her to random drugs still enrages Peti-Peterdi.
Luckily his mother was—and still is—a fighter. Late one night, she disconnected her tubes and escaped by train to a more enlightened nephrology clinic in Budapest, where months of superior care stabilized her.
She would go on to have two healthy pregnancies, and both of her children ultimately became physicians.
There would be more relapses and hospital stays—lasting months, sometimes a year. At home, she suffered from debilitating fatigue. But her husband and children adored her. “My mother was always the center, the strength, the engine of our family,” he says.
As a young boy, Peti-Peterdi made rounds on the farm collecting blood samples from frogs, chickens and rabbits. He would examine them under a microscope, dreaming of someday curing his mother’s disease.
Today, his lab still uses microscopes, but they’ve advanced since his childhood. His high-tech scopes enable him to see living kidney tissue from mice—healthy and diseased—in great detail and in three dimensions.
Observation is key, because the healthy kidney has the ability to repair itself. “We would like to better understand how that intrinsic repair happens, and see if we can augment that, maybe even cause a regression of kidney disease. That’s our concept,” he explains.
A third of all patients with diabetes develop kidney disease, he says, as do many people with metabolic disorders, immune and inflammatory diseases or hypertension. Two National Institutes of Health grants worth about $5 million support his work. In 2015, he received the Young Investigator Award of the American Society of Nephrology and the Council on the Kidney of the American Heart Association.
As for his mother’s journey, it still isn’t over.
After enduring every complication from chronic kidney disease, she reached the end stage as her son was finishing medical school.
“She’s a survivor,” Peti-Peterdi says. “That’s the bottom line. Every single one of these complications is life-threatening. People usually die.”
His mother was approved for a kidney transplant in 1995, when her son was already working as a nurse at the Budapest clinic where she would receive her donor organ. With the new kidney, everything changed. “She became a normal, healthy person. The kidney works perfectly after 21 years,” he says.
But five years ago, she abruptly sank into dementia, believed to be a result of the many kidney-related complications she endured. At age 73, she no longer recognizes her family. But Peti-Peterdi soldiers on.
Though the once-precarious condition of his mother’s kidneys no longer keeps Peti-Peterdi up at night, his mission hasn’t changed. His team is developing a new concept and therapeutic approach that he believes will lead to a breakthrough.
“Almost every day, when I wake up, this is the question I ask: What can I do today to find a cure for this devastating disease?”