$10M artificial kidney prize now live via HHS, American Society of Nephrology

"If you look at what patients want, more than anything they'd like to have an implantable kidney. But innovation has not been forthcoming."
By Kat Jercich
09:10 AM
Kidneys showing up as red on an otherwise black-and-white X-ray

The KidneyX Artificial Kidney Prize, designed to accelerate the development of artificial kidneys toward human trials, is now open for submissions.  

Leaders from Luminary Labs, the consultancy that designed and produced the prize, said it represents the ways that the government can promote innovation through public-private partnerships such as KidneyX, which is a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the American Society of Nephrology.  

"This is an absolute marathon and it is technologically possible," said Sara Holoubek, CEO and founder of Luminary Labs, in an interview with Healthcare IT News. "What we needed was a mechanism to stimulate the market."  

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WHY IT MATTERS  

Current technology to treat end-stage kidney failure has not meaningfully changed in decades, with patients frequently required to travel to centers for in-person dialysis multiple times per week.   

During a pandemic, this has posed particularly stark challenges, said Dr. John Sedor, a nephrologist at the Cleveland Clinic and chair of the KidneyX steering committee.  

Though there have been some improvements – dialysis machines have gotten much smaller, kidney doctors understand how to better manage patient complications – "we've ended up with a dearth of innovation for a number of years," said Sedor.  

"If you look at what patients want, more than anything they'd like to have an implantable kidney. But innovation has not been forthcoming," he said.  

The Artificial Kidney Prize is intended to stoke that innovation, with organizers encouraging a diversity of solutions.   

"If we had not just one type of artificial kidney, but multiple different types, that would be ideal," said Julia Key, an associate at Luminary Labs. For instance, said Key, people with higher risk profiles may be better candidates for less invasive solutions.   

Key also noted that judges will be asked to assess the patient impact of potential tools – a particularly important criterion given the effects of social determinants of health and systemic racism on kidney disease.  

Black people, for example, are disproportionately likely to develop kidney failure – and 13 people die each day waiting for a kidney transplant.   

Key and Sedor pointed out, too, that having to travel in person to dialysis centers can be extremely disruptive, potentially endangering jobs and family relationships.  

"Even by giving people more options and access to be able to live their lives, that does create more equality in access to care," said Key.  

The Luminary Labs team expressed their hope that the structure of the prize facilitates collaboration rather than competition. Key pointed to the KidneyX solver community, which allows individuals and teams to maximize on skill sets and share information.   

"One of the things that struck me the most as we were designing this was how genuinely enthusiastic and caring a lot of people in this space are," said Key. "When you talk to nephrologists, a lot of people have a deep connection with their patient. This is a long-term care issue."  

Submissions for Phase 1 of the prize, which calls for prototype solutions with detailed development plans, will close on March 24 of this year. Phase 2 will be open to eligible Phase 1 entrants and new eligible entrants. It will focus on integration of prototype solutions into an artificial kidney or advancement of already integrated prototypes.  

"In terms of kidney care, both the financial and human cost are unacceptable," said Holoubek.   

THE LARGER TREND  

Sedor said that he feels hopeful that the new presidential administration will continue the work started by previous ones. He noted that the idea for KidneyX began taking shape during President Barack Obama's term, and that he believes "the career people recognize the need for us to address kidney disease issues." 

This bipartisanship also may stem, in part, from the significant cost to the government from kidney disease over the years.  

"Medicare spends more on kidney disease than the entire NASA budget or the entire Department of Commerce," said former HHS CTO Bruce Greenstein in 2018.

ON THE RECORD  

"The patients really are partners in this from both ends of the spectrum," said Sedor. "I'm excited about the future."

 

Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.
Twitter: @kjercich
Email: kjercich@himss.org
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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