Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is a serious and often fatal medical condition. Annual spending in the United States for CKD care is more than $64 billion and constitutes some 20 percent of all Medicare spending. 600,000 Americans are hooked up to a kidney dialysis machine several times a week. For 65% of these patients, life expectancy is no more than five years.

Once someone gets to the point of needing dialysis, there’s no cure for CKD other than a kidney transplant. But the waiting list for a compatible donor is long – in some cases tragically too long.

Tel Aviv-based KidneyCure cannot completely stop CKD, but its technology may be able to delay the start of dialysis, providing greater quality of life and more time away from the hospital for CKD patients.

KidneyCure’s approach would involve removing some of the patient’s unhealthy kidney cells, processing them in such a way that they turn into healthy cells, and finally reintroducing these healthy cells into the patient’s kidney where they proliferate, improve and repair the function of the kidney.

KidneyCure does not do any genetic manipulation. It essentially makes the sick cells “feel better.”

While at the moment the cells must be extracted through a needle biopsy, KidneyCure is already working on a second-generation, less invasive technique that collects old kidney cells from the patient’s urine.

Although the kidney will still fail eventually, KidneyCure believes it can push that deterioration off by a year or more. How long exactly is still unknown as the company has only tested its approach on mice so far.

Clinical trials starting this year

A $4 million first round of funding from Aurum Ventures and Direct Insurance will enable KidneyCure to begin human testing starting in 2019. A product available for patients could be ready as early as the mid-2020s if the tests are successful.

KidneyCure’s path to commercialization may be speeded up through the Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy Designation, a program in the US designed for diseases that have no cure.

CKD is caused by depletion of renal cells due to diabetes, high blood pressure or aging. An affected kidney can no longer generate new renal cells due to what’s called “stem cell exhaustion.”

There are an estimated 200 million patients with CKD worldwide, with 30 million in the US alone – some 10% of the population – most of them undiagnosed. End-stage renal disease, the terminal stage of CKD, affects more than 3 million individuals worldwide. As the population ages, these numbers are increasing rapidly.

Current therapeutic options are largely limited to supportive care – increasing a patient’s Vitamin D or taking medications to reduce blood pressure and phosphorous – until dialysis is eventually needed.

KidneyCure was founded almost a decade ago, in 2009, by Dr. Benjamin Dekel, a world-renowned authority in nephrology (the treatment of kidney conditions and abnormalities) and the head of pediatric nephrology at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan.

Dekel had been working on a technology to grow cells outside a patient’s body and reintroduce them when an investor came to the hospital. The investor had a relative at Sheba with CKD. Dekel and the investor hit it off and decided to create a virtual company, with Dekel continuing his research at Sheba.

When Dekel’s work showed enough progress to be turned into a commercial product, KidneyCure recruited med-tech rock star Alon Yaar as its CEO. Consequently, new investors came aboard.

Yaar joined the company earlier this year after previously founding NeuroDerm, which is developing novel treatments for central nervous system disorders, in particular for Parkinson’s disease. NeuroDerm was sold to Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma in 2017 for $1.1 billion.

“Chronic kidney disease has reached the dimension of a plague,” Yaar told Globes earlier this year.

KidneyCure may not yet be a cure, but it could be a critical first step.

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