Researchers study causes of kidney damage

April 22, 2014

Weight distribution may cause 'extra wear and tear'

Story by Greg Harris; photo by Paul Rotzinger

When Calgarian Arlene MacCallum heard about a new research study that’s trying to determine the impact of weight and body shape on kidney function, she didn’t have to think very long before signing up.

Medical student Ann Zalucky, study participant Arlene MacCallum and nephrologist and principal investigator Dr. Sofia Ahmed, from left, are part of a new study investigating how weight distribution may affect kidney function.“My father had kidney disease and died at quite a young age, and my husband is a kidney transplant recipient,” she says.

“It just seemed natural that I would get involved in something like this that might shed more light on how kidney disease develops.”

Over the years, health scientists have drawn clear links between obesity and sleep apnea, and sleep apnea and deteriorating kidney function. Now researchers with Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the University of Calgary are investigating whether excess weight alone has a harmful effect on the kidneys.

Diabetes and high blood pressure are two of the biggest risk factors for kidney damage but a growing body of research now suggests that how weight is distributed may affect kidney function,” says Dr. Sofia Ahmed, an AHS nephrologist and principal investigator in the study.

“Anything that creates extra wear and tear on the kidneys can contribute to a loss in function, in the same way that a car that’s driven hard over time can’t continue to perform at the same high level. In our study, we hope to learn more about what the relationship may be between increased weight and how it is distributed – such as apple or pear shapes – and kidney function.”

In particular, researchers will be looking at a hormonal system called the renin-angiotensin system and whether extra weight has an impact on it and, in turn, how hard the kidneys have to work to keep a person’s blood clean.

Individuals interested in taking part in the study will first have a screening history taken and then a physical exam.

“We’re looking for people who are generally in good health and who don’t have any underlying health conditions, such as diabetes,” says Ann Zalucky, a medical student who is helping lead the study as part of her MD/MSc degree in the University of Calgary’s Leaders in Medicine Program.

“We’re interested in all sorts of body compositions and sizes.”

One stipulation is that participants must not have sleep apnea. If they pass through the initial screening, they’ll be sent home with a device that measures their breathing and heart rate during sleep to determine if they have sleep apnea.

If eligible, participants will be asked to come in for one study visit that lasts about three hours. During the study visit, blood will be drawn and various physiological measures taken.

The study is funded by Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions. Dr. Ahmed is also a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta.

Anyone interested in taking part in the study should contact the research co-ordinator at
403-210-7434 or email at