High School Student Develops Noninvasive Screening Tool for Chronic Kidney Transplant Rejection

Kidney transplantation has been the preferred treatment for people suffering from kidney failure since Dr. Joseph E. Murray completed the first successful kidney transplant in 1954. Although recent advances in transplant medicine have drastically lowered the risk of acute transplant rejection, these advances have failed to deliver an effective treatment for chronic allograft nephropathy (CAN), which remains the leading cause of organ loss following transplantation and limits the 10-year survival rate of a kidney transplant to 54%. If detected early, intervention can minimize CAN, but the current “gold standard” for diagnosis is tissue biopsy, which is heavily invasive and cannot detect the disease until after substantial kidney damage has already occurred.

For Demetri Maxim, a high school junior in Maine, the difficulties of kidney transplants and kidney disease are personal. In August 2004, Demetri’s mother, Lefki, lost both her kidneys to polycystic kidney disease (PKD) and was forced to go on dialysis. Fortunately, she received a kidney transplant in October 2005, just 14 months later. Demetri also has PKD and may someday lose his kidney function as well.

Demetri’s mother experienced four different rejection episodes in the first 18 months of her transplant. Each episode necessitated a painful biopsy that involved removing a small piece of the kidney to test for rejection, a process that further reduces the long-term success of the organ. Demetri knew there had to be another way to tell whether or not she was rejecting her kidney. So the summer before he started high school he set out to invent an alternative method of detecting CAN. Two years later, in March 2014, following countless hours of background research and lab work, Demetri’s invention won grand prize at the Maine State High School Science Fair and qualified for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

At Kidney Week 2014, Demetri presented a poster describing the simple, portable, patent-pending device that can be used to non-invasively monitor CAN in kidney transplant recipients. The device works by screening patient blood samples for the biomarker VEGF-C, which is upregulated during CAN. The device is 11 times faster and 16 times less expensive than the current gold standard for biomarker detection, ELISA. He hopes to publish his work.

Demetri currently works in Dr. Joseph Bonventre’s Laboratory of Kidney Injury and Repair at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School on research to bioengineer an artificial kidney. He plans to continue this work and pursue pre-med studies to ultimately become a nephrologist and lead the fight against kidney disease in the next generation.