Industry News: Celebrating Women in Science – Meet the Leading Nephrologist Advancing our Understanding of Renal Fibrosis

10 Feb 2017

A new Women in Science campaign has been launched, championing the female scientists leading the way in the world of research. Kidney Research UK is behind the campaign which has been running throughout the week in the lead-up to the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2017 on Saturday, February 11.

Although traditionally perceived as a male dominated field, Kidney Research UK’s latest data has revealed that 50% of its leading renal researchers are female – a figure the organization is very proud of. Off the back of this, Kidney Research UK hopes to help inspire the next generation of female scientists across the nation, by highlighting some of the pioneering and exciting work currently being carried out by their female colleagues.

Among them is leading nephrologist Dr Claire Sharpe, a Reader in Renal Medicine and an Honorary Consultant Nephrologist at King’s College London and King’s College Hospital. She divides her time equally between her research and teaching work and her clinical work with renal patients, including those with kidney damage caused by sickle cell disease.

Her research studies are significantly advancing our understanding of the development of renal fibrosis – the main underlying cause of kidney failure. She hopes this ongoing work will eventually lead to the development of new anti-fibrotic drugs which could make Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) a treatable condition, resulting in fewer patients needing to depend on dialysis to survive.

Kidney Research UK has played a pivotal role in the career of the mother of three; by initially awarding her a Clinical Training Fellowship in 1999 and by funding three of her research projects.

Mum-of-Three puts her Success Down to Three Key Factors

Dr Sharpe believes her personal success can also be put down to three key factors: dogged determination, chance opportunities and supportive individuals.

“I’m very lucky to be able to do all the things I enjoy while still having the flexibility to focus on my young family, whenever they need me. It’s very hard work but it’s enormously rewarding,” she says.

“I’ve had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time on several occasions and I have learned to stay focused and persevere – even when faced with countless grant rejections. I’ve also been extremely lucky to have support from pivotal people throughout my career including my husband, mentors, colleagues and our nanny who provided invaluable, reliable childcare for 14 years.”

Interest in Science From an Early Age

“I’ve been interested in science for as long as I can remember,” she says. “But I suppose my initial drive to turn my passion into a career came from a rather unexpected source. I remember my physics teacher saying to me: ‘Girls really only do Physics A Level because they know they’re going to be in a class full of boys.’ And that comment made me determined to show him that I was going to do things differently.

“Alongside him, the other person that truly influenced me was Rosalind Franklin – an X-ray crystallographer who worked at King’s College London in the early 1950s. She was the person who collected the data that proved the structure of DNA. But she died tragically at a young age, only receiving her due recognition after death. Her story really fired me up as a teenager and the injustice of it all made me want to go on and fight the cause as well. So I went to University College London (UCL) to study medicine.

“Even at my interview for medical school I was clear that I wanted to do medical research. I was attracted to the idea of pushing the boundaries forward – all that new knowledge and all the potential possibilities – I found this fascinating.”

Specializing in Renal Fibrosis

Dr Sharpe chose to leave her first registrar post in the UK to go travelling, before resuming her clinical work in Australia. This decision led to a meeting with Professor Bruce Hendry (fibrosis expert, Professor Emeritus at King’s College, London, and immediate past President of the UK Renal Association) who was in Sydney for an international renal conference. This meeting eventually paved the way for Dr Sharpe to begin her PhD, under his supervision and mentorship.

“Fibrosis is the process that causes organs to fail, not just the kidney, and it’s a common process,” she says.

“When you repeatedly injure an organ eventually that organ will start to scar in response to injury, rather than repair and regenerate. And that switch from repair and regeneration to scar formation is little understood, but it’s the laying down of scar tissue, replacing the normal functional tissue, that actually causes organ failure.

“By understanding what drives this scarring process, my research team hope to influence that switch from repair and regeneration to scar formation. We have previously discovered that a master signaling molecule within cells called K-Ras is vital in the scarring process. In the first of my ongoing research projects, funded by Kidney Research UK, we are hoping to learn more about the way K-Ras sends messages to the cell to change cell behavior. We are also aiming to identify new proteins that could be useful for future drug development.

“Kidney disease often arises from abnormal cell growth in the filtering units of the kidney. Patients who show these changes include those with common diseases such as diabetes and lgA nephropathy – a condition that occurs when an antibody called immunoglobulin A (IgA) lodges in the kidneys. In our second project, we are investigating whether a new type of drug, known as a selective T-type calcium channel (TTCC) inhibitor, could potentially benefit these patients and reduce kidney damage. Depending on the outcome of our studies, this drug could go on to be tested in clinical trials.”

Gender Inequality in Medicine

In addition to many other renal roles and responsibilities, Dr Sharpe is Head of the Department of Renal Sciences in the Division of Transplant Immunology and Mucosal Biology, at King’s College, London. She is also chair of the Divisional Athena SWAN Self-assessment committee which successfully obtained a silver charter mark from the government-backed Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) for demonstrating gender equality.

“Around 55 per cent of people coming into medicine are female but this drops to about 15 per cent at professor level, so no institution can say that they don’t have a gender inequality,” says Dr Sharpe. “It’s about looking at your data and trying to work out why you have one and what you can do to address it.

“Some processes do effectively discriminate against women, even in an unintentional kind of way. For example, setting up decision-making meetings at 8am when people are doing the school run or not rotating people at these meetings, so it’s harder for people to get involved. It’s all sorts of things like that that impact on career progression. But I think there has been a sea change in academia over the past five years which is making a big impact on gender equality.

“Looking back on my own experiences I think I had enough faith in the system to know that being heavily pregnant at my clinical science award interview would not adversely influence the outcome. However, I did find that, on returning to work full-time after having one of my children, attitudes changed towards me somewhat. Because my working week was split between two locations, I was treated as a part-timer and I experienced some of the incorrect assumptions associated with working part-time, such as people thinking you’re not fully committed or part of their team. People need to recognize that these attitudes are not appropriate.

“I also think that, moving forward, gender and age should be removed from all application processes. This would get rid of the risk of unconscious bias in these areas.

“I have been very fortunate to have had inspiring mentors throughout my career but in the early days all my mentors were men, because there just weren’t many women to choose from. It would have been nice to have had a woman who had been through some of the things I was going through at that time.

“Hopefully now that there is a greater critical mass of female scientists we will be able to mentor the new people coming through and inspire them to catch the research bug, just as we did.”

Collaboration Between Science and the Arts

Dr Sharpe’s research work recently took her into totally new territory – the arts. She was one of four female scientists who took part in a special project called The Franklin Effect, which was run by The Electric Voice Theatre. As part of the project, which celebrates the work of Rosalind Franklin and collaboration between the arts and sciences, Dr Sharpe was paired up with British composer Lynne Plowman. She gave Lynne the chemical sequence to the K –Ras gene and Lynn transposed it into a musical score, written for a four voice part. This was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and at the Science Museum and is now available on CD.

“It’s certainly not pop music or easy listening, but it is interesting and the project was great fun,” she says. “And that’s what I love about research – it always offers endless possibilities!”