Russell Whelan, MD, PhD - 2020 Donald E. Wesson Research Fellow

Name: Russell Whelan, MD, PhD

Institution: University of Washington, Seattle Children’s Hospital

Grant: 2020 Donald E. Wesson Research Fellow

Project Title: Dissecting Shigatoxin-mediated Endothelial Injury in Engineered Renal Microvasculature



Name: Russell Whelan, MD, PhD

Institution: University of Washington, Seattle Children’s Hospital

Grant: 2020 Donald E. Wesson Research Fellow

Project Title: Dissecting Shigatoxin-mediated Endothelial Injury in Engineered Renal Microvasculature


How would you sum up your research in one sentence?

  • My research focuses on the roles of programmed cell death in disease, with a particular focus on the role of cell death and vascular injury in engineered renal microvessels and other physiologically relevant platforms.

Provide a brief overview of the research you will conduct with help from the grant.

  • Shigatoxin-mediated Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome is a disease caused by exposure to toxin-generating bacteria (that is typically contracted from ingesting contaminated food sources). The progression of this disease leads to injury and destruction of blood cells and smaller blood vessels, with the microvasculature of the kidney being particularly affected.  During this grant period, I will evaluate the pathways by which these kidney vascular cells are injured and die in response to Shigatoxin, both in tissue culture and engineered renal microvasculature.  With a better understating of these pathways, further evaluation of possible treatments can be performed.

What impact do you hope your research will have on patients?

  • Shigatoxin-mediated HUS has no demonstrated effective treatment apart from supportive care, and a significant proportion of hospitalized kids will require dialysis. There are also significant risks for chronic kidney disease and other complications with this disease. A major goal of this research is to better understand how this injury occurs, thereby illuminating more targeted interventions early in the disease course, all with the hope of preventing the more severe and long-lasting complications. Also, a better understanding of this disease will provide valuable insight to therapeutic approaches in other similar diseases affecting the kidney, which affect both children and adults.

What are your career goals at the end of the grant period? Five years out? Ten years out?

  • By the end of this grant, my goal is to have contributed substantive research on this work to share with the scientific community, and that the work during this fellowship will provide a springboard towards my research independence. A decade from now, I hope to be a practicing physician-scientist who is leading a basic science lab, with the focus of leveraging bench research findings into clinically relevant insights for the treatment of HUS and other thrombotic microangiopathies.

What inspired you to focus your research in this area?

  • Scientifically, my graduate schoolwork focused on basic mechanisms of cell death in cellular and physiologic models. Clinically, during my time in residency and fellowship, I was surprised when I saw how little targeted treatment we have for kids with HUS. We are often providing supportive care and waiting to see how the disease course progresses – and it is very nerve-racking for parents to have to wait every day to see if this is the day their child will need dialysis or not. When the opportunity arose to work with my mentors Dr. Zheng and Dr. Himmelfarb on this project, I realized this topic provided an amalgam of my scientific and clinical interests. I feel that this research project is a fortunate confluence of my bench and bedside experiences that keeps me focused and enthusiastic about finding more answers that can help improve treatments.

What are the major challenges to beginning a career in nephrology research today?

  • Given the clinical expectations of academic medicine, I feel that being able to have time—particularly protected time—to undertake basic research remains a major challenge for young investigators hoping to establish their research niche. Nephrology has excellent research questions, brilliant investigators in the field, and a supportive network of researchers, but being able to have early-stage support is essential to develop the skills and expertise for a solid research foundation.

What advice would you give to others to encourage them to apply for this grant funding?

  • My former Seattle Children’s co-resident Ken Sutha, who is a 2019 KidneyCure fellow award, strongly encouraged me to apply for this grant. In addition to his support and guidance in applying, his enthusiasm about KidneyCure made me very excited to apply.  I would be happy to be able to pay that favor forward by talking with anyone interested in applying.

Something you may not know about me is…

  • My prior major basic science experiences were in the fields of Pulmonology and Cardiology….it took me a little while but I finally found the most interesting organ to study!

In my free time I like to…

  • I enjoy hiking, swimming, biking, baking, reading, and spending time outdoors with my toddler and wife.