A total of $4.7 million from the National Institutes of Health was awarded to Northwell Health’s Cohen Children’s Medical Center and The Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research.

With that funding, from two NIH grants, the Northwell organizations will study a specific kidney disorder in children. The disorder, nephrotic syndrome, causes the body to pass too much protein into the urine.

Nephrotic syndrome is usually caused by damage to the clusters of small blood vessels in the kidneys that filter waste and excess water from the blood. This condition often causes swelling, particularly in the feet and ankles, and increases the risk of other health problems, including kidney failure.

With the funding, researchers aim to find new ways to treat children with nephrotic syndrome, who otherwise might grapple with not only the illness but also with side effects from any steroid treatment.

Led by Dr. Christine Sethna, division director of pediatric nephrology at Cohen Children’s Medical Center and associate professor at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell and at Feinstein, a $1.03 million grant awarded last year will be used to fund a new clinical trial for children with nephrotic syndrome through stimulation of the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is often referred to as the body’s superhighway , connecting the brain with all major organs and controls functions like heart rate, breathing and gastrointestinal function. When the nerve is stimulated, it can reduce inflammation, which is a trigger for many diseases and helps reset the body’s immune system.

Researchers aim to study the mechanism of action by stimulating the vagus nerve – which can be activated non-invasively on the ear – to have immunomodulatory effects mediated by the inflammatory reflex and spleen.

“This funding will allow us to study, and ultimately help, children living with nephrotic syndrome and better understand how the condition can best be treated without negative side effects that steroids and medications could potentially leave,” Sethna said in a statement. “These advancements can further the evidence that drugs are not always necessary to alleviate a problem, especially in young children.”

The second grant of $3.7 million, awarded in March, will be used to initiate the kNIGHT study, which will focus on nocturnal hypertension in children with nephrotic syndrome. The observational study will examine the nighttime blood pressure and cardiovascular outcomes in children with nephrotic syndrome at 22 different centers. This data will inform future research and trials around this common trait of high nighttime blood pressure.

“Dr. Sethna is conducting valuable research to better understand nephrotic syndrome in children,” Dr. Charles Schleien, senior vice president of pediatric services at Northwell Health, said in a statement. “With the support of these two grants, one day children may have new treatment options to help manage their disease and improve their overall quality of life.”

The Feinstein Institutes has a focus on bioelectronic medicine, which combines molecular medicine, neuroscience and biomedical engineering. Here, medical researchers use modern technology to develop new device-based therapies to treat disease and injury.

“Children with nephrotic syndrome suffer from the symptoms of the illness and from the side effects of steroids used in treatment,” Dr.  Kevin Tracey,  president and CEO of the Feinstein Institutes, said in a statement. “Dr. Sethna’s research into vagus nerve stimulation to reverse the inflammation is an important step towards finding alternate therapies.”


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