Filtering Through Genes to Improve Clinical Outcomes for Kidney Disease

Article by Stephanie Tran

Graphic design by Michie Wu

From bedside to bench to bedside again, Dr. Moumita Barua uses next-generation sequencing to discover novel genes involved in chronic kidney disease and to develop clinical tools for treatment. Dr. Barua is a Clinician-Scientist and Assistant Professor in the Division of Nephrology at the University Health Network and the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto.

Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine
Clinician-Scientist, University Health Network

Photo Credit: Krystal Jacques

“Chronic kidney disease is an under-estimated worldwide health problem,” says Dr. Barua. “If you look at the statistics, 10% of the global community has it.” Current treatment options for kidney failure are limited to dialysis and organ transplantation, both of which are costly and subject to major disparities in access, being more widely available in developed countries. Furthermore, though kidney transplantation is preferred over dialysis in many cases, it is associated with lengthy wait times, perioperative comorbidities, risk of rejection, and long-term complications due to immunosuppression.  

“There is a lack of awareness about kidney disease and, as a result, there is a lack of funding. Because there is a lack in funding, there is also a paucity of research in areas trying to understand mechanisms underlying the disease and its therapeutic development,” Dr. Barua notes. Her research aims to address these gaps in the field by understanding the causes of chronic kidney diseases from a genetic perspective. Using patient DNA samples, her lab identifies genetic variants that increase disease risk and examines them in clinically relevant genetic models to uncover mechanisms. Her lab has received several grants within the past year, including two Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) project grants.

Throughout her life, Dr. Barua has been fortunate to have received tremendous support from dedicated mentors. The first of these mentors were her family members, who supported her passion for science at a young age. Even as a child, she was drawn to the areas of math and science. When it was time to make decisions about what to pursue following high school, she decided to do a Bachelor of Science at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, her hometown.

A big inspiration for Dr. Barua is her late father, Dr. Subodh Barua, who paved the way for her when he moved to Canada. Her father attended the best engineering school in Bangladesh (BUET), where he became interested in research. In pursuit of this passion, he went on to complete a Masters degree in the United States and obtained his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at the University of Waterloo. His work was highly regarded, winning prestigious national awards. He then took on an industry position and settled in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where Dr. Barua spent her childhood. Growing up, her parents encouraged her to participate in extracurricular activities, so she wrote for the city and school newspapers. Her father supported her by editing all her written work, and, in doing so, taught her a great deal about the art of writing well. To this day, Dr. Barua attributes much of her success to the writing skills her father instilled in her, which she continues to use daily.

It was in medical school that Dr. Barua met an individual who would shape the course of her academic career. After her third year of undergrad, Dr. Barua began her medical education at the University of Toronto. This is where she was introduced to the world of academia. “Medical school in Toronto was a very vibrant research environment,” said Dr. Barua. “There is a huge concentration of research activities in the downtown core, and the students in my medical class had more exposure to research than I had. Through the influence of friends in medical school, I decided to just spend my summers in a research lab. And that led me to meet the person who really influenced my decision to pursue research in my career, even as a medical doctor.”

Dr. Barua with her parents at her MD graduation

This pivotal person was Dr. Steven Balk, an oncologist and Clinician-Scientist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. “He was an outstanding mentor. It was important to him to be a mentor to even the summer students.” So, what made him so memorable? Dr. Balk helped her foster a passion for research by giving her a discrete project that she could carry from start to finish. He provided all students, including her, with close supervision, personally training them on how to conduct several of the fundamental lab techniques. More importantly, he met with his students regularly to discuss not only data but career goals. He was very supportive of Dr. Barua’s aspirations and encouraged her to continue in academia. Her experience was so positive that she returned the following summer and published two papers. “It was really at that time where I said, ‘I want to be a clinician-scientist,’” she said. “I had never thought of that before and didn’t even know what that was growing up.”

With this new goal in sight, Dr. Barua continued to conduct research. Throughout her residency at the University of Toronto and post-doctoral fellowship at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, her mentors made sure she had defined projects that allowed her to publish more papers. This proved to be vital to her success and, in October 2015, she started her own laboratory within the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute.

She attributes her success to her excellent mentors. She pays it forward in her own lab by committing to the career development of her trainees and staff. To end the interview, she shares a piece of advice for research trainees: “Talk to a lot of people who know you and people who you can tell your story to and what your goals are. Get their advice. Because everyone who is at my stage of career or later will look back and see that there were people along the way, though they didn’t realize it at the time, that were really defining in their progression.”

Thank you to Dr. Barua for sharing her research journey! The Barua Lab is currently recruiting postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. For more information, see or follow Dr. Barua at @MoumitaBaruaTO.