A musical cure for African-American kidney disease?
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A musical cure for African-American kidney disease?

Smokey Robinson and Natalie Cole among headliners at festival to fund Rambam Hospital research into the genetic basis of a prevalent illness

Dr. Karl Skorecki (Photo credit: Rambam Hospital)
Dr. Karl Skorecki (Photo credit: Rambam Hospital)

The average American has about a one in eight chance of suffering from kidney disease, but for African-Americans, due to genetic factors, those odds are about three and a half times higher.

Now, in an unprecedented fundraising project for research on the issue by an Israeli institution, Haifa’s Rambam Hospital will be holding a gala entertainment event at the end of August featuring top African-American artists like Smokey Robinson, Natalie Cole (herself a kidney disease survivor), and a host of other black, Jewish and Israeli singers, actors, musicians, and more.

There have been gala events involving Hollywood (and Motown) royalty to raise money for Israeli institutions in the past, but On The Vine, which is to be held by Rambam to raise funds for further research on kidney complications among African Americans, is the first one that can be called a music festival, with events going on over four days, from Thursday August 22 through Sunday August 25, at Martha’s Vineyard on Cape Cod.

Besides Robinson and Cole, the event will feature performances by Kenny “BabyFace” Edmonds, jazz greats Kahil El Zabar, Roy Hargrove and James Carter, comedian and kidney disease survivor Richard Lewis, Grammy Award winning violinist Miri Ben-Ari, singer-songwriter Angie Stone, and others. The event was created by and will be produced under the leadership of Dennis Shortt, a Chicago-based producer who has been running similar events in the African-American community since the 1980s.

Smokey Robinson (photo credit: Dwight McCann / Chumash Casino Resort / Wikipedia Commons)
Smokey Robinson (photo credit: Dwight McCann / Chumash Casino Resort / Wikipedia Commons)

The perhaps unlikely alliance between a large segment of the African-American community and an Israeli hospital half a world away is due to the work of one of Israel’s top geneticists, Dr. Karl Skorecki. Skorecki’s interest in kidney disease and African-Americans goes to his early days in medicine, when he was a resident at a hospital in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury. “I remember individual patients, people with certain diseases, and seeing African-Americans suffering and getting much worse, much more aggressively,” prominent among them diseases related to kidney complications, Skorecki told a group of African-American doctors in Los Angeles at a meeting last March.

As evidence mounted, Skorecki said, it was clear that African-Americans were suffering from kidney disease far more than other Americans. Later, at Rambam, he began exploring the issue more in-depth as he had the opportunity to work with Ethiopian immigrants to Israel.

With advances in gene research and technology, Skorecki said, he was able to determine what appears to be the cause of an increased risk kidney disease in all African populations — a gene that most people of African descent carry that helps the body deal with African sleeping sickness.

Natalie Cole (photo credit: Angela George / Wikipedia Commons0
Natalie Cole (photo credit: Angela George / Wikipedia Commons0

As more people of African descent no longer resided in the Sub-Saharan African regions of their ancestors, and subsequently no longer needed the gene’s sleeping sickness protection, the gene actually became detrimental when affected by factors in other environments, resulting in an increased risk for kidney disease. Some combination of genetics and environmental elements is behind the plague of kidney disease among African-Americans, Skorecki said, and the next step, he said, is to focus on figuring out what those combinations are.

“We need to try to identify the factors and develop a vaccine,” Skorecki said. “Understanding the intricacies of how genetic predisposition works with an environmental trigger, whether it be environmental toxins, nutritional, whatever it is,is going to give us insights that will reduce the burden of kidney disease in other communities as well,” he told the group.

For that, more research is needed — and it’s hoped that the money for that research will come from the funds raised at On The Vine.

Michelle Segelnick, director of the American Friends of Rambam (AFORAM), which is working with Shortt to produce the show, said, “Dr. Skorecki’s team of researchers feels that, within five years and with approximately five million dollars, they will find a vaccine for the virus that triggers this gene. Once we find that gene and cure, we can eradicate kidney disease in about 70 percent of the population.”

It was an opportunity for the Israeli hospital to build bridges with an important segment of the American population. “We thought ‘why wouldn’t we want to spread this and help people all over the world?’,” said Segelnick.

The rest, she said, is — or will be, at the end of August — history. AFORAM linked up with marketing veteran Shortt to bring attention to Skorecki’s research, and it was Shortt, she said, who came up with the ambitious idea of a four-day festival.

On The Vine has been getting a lot of positive coverage in African-American media, and ticket sales are going very well – and as an extra added benefit, she said, the event will help bring African-Americans closer to Israel and to American Jews. “We are excited about all who have come together in support of this cause,” Segelnick said. “We are proud to show how Israel, as the Jewish nation, is working to improve the health and the lives of other population groups. Jews and non-Jews alike can and do benefit from Rambam’s research and innovation, because the hospital stands for offering fair and quality care to all individuals.”

Skorecki is also cognizant of the importance of his research. “As an observant Jew and a Jew living in Israel, I think that what I’m doing is a continuation of what others have done for millennia; the Jewish people have always tried to be in the forefront of tikun olam and being part of the universal message of trying your best.”

“It’s a part of our heritage to reach to work with the Al-mighty to make the world a better place,” he said. “First and foremost , I am a physician and I am interested in discoveries that promote health and save lives, which is a Jewish universal value.”

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