European researchers set up new network to boost use of MRI biomarkers in managing kidney disease

Researchers from 22 European countries have set up PARENCHIMA, a network that will boost the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) biomarkers in efficiently managing chronic kidney disease.

Chronic kidney disease is affecting more than 10% of the world's population, and this number is on the rise, especially in highly developed countries. Kidney function starts declining, and patients are more prone to developing other life-changing conditions such as heart failure. If left untreated, the disease can lead to kidney failure, at which point patients depend on dialysis or transplants. Around 350 000 people are on dialysis in the EU alone, which translates into a €15 billion burden on healthcare systems across the EU.

The scale of the public health challenge that chronic kidney disease poses is in striking contrast to the small number of available treatments, which have shown limitations in slowing down the disease. No truly new therapies have emerged over the last 15 years, and many recent clinical trials using novel drugs have failed to show benefit.

MRI biomarkers have shown potential in tackling these problems. They are safe and non-invasive, and unlike blood- or urine tests, MRI directly examines the organ itself in high detail. In recent years, MRI biomarkers have been able to detect key early signs of the disease such as renal enlargement, reduced blood flow and oxygen reserve, or changes in kidney structure. These biomarkers have the potential to detect ineffective treatments early on, identify the patients most likely to benefit from treatment or those that are responding well to an intervention. This can massively improve the efficacy of drug development and patient care.  Unfortunately, MRI biomarkers are still only rarely used in practice. This is because they can currently only be measured in dedicated centers that require highly specialized staff and use technologies that are not easily transferred or compared.

For the next four years, PARENCHIMA will break these barriers and enable the broader study, commercial exploitation and clinical use of MRI biomarkers. Participants will join forces to define international standards for measuring MRI biomarkers and develop user-friendly, open-access tools and databases to share these standards with other centers. Network members will promote the use of such biomarkers in clinical practice by setting up multi-centre clinical studies meant to prove the biological validity and clinical utility of such biomarkers. The group will also organize trainings for scientists and clinicians - including early career scientists - on how to integrate these biomarkers in their practice.

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