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Island doctor led the world in kidney research and dialysis
More than 360,000 Americans undergo kidney dialysis to stay alive today. Sixty years ago, there were only handfuls. During that time, Island resident Christopher Blagg was one of the world’s preeminent researchers in kidney dialysis, a procedure that replaces the kidney’s normal functions when the organ fails. And Seattle — with Northwest Kidney Centers and the University of Washington medical program — has long been at the forefront of kidney research and treatment. This is precisely why Blagg relocated to Seattle from Leeds University, England, in 1963; a year when dialysis treatment was still in its infancy.
“These days, anyone can get dialysis treatment — whether they have chronic or acute kidney failure. In fact, it’s the only disease covered by Medicare. If you get permanent kidney failure, you’re entitled to dialysis,” said Blagg, who occasionally lectures as a professor emeritus at the UW.
Prior to 1960, only the privileged could afford what was an expensive and complicated procedure. Blagg remembers this time himself. He was one of a handful of nephrologists overseeing dialysis treatment at Leeds University in England.
“The program in Leeds generally was just to treat patients with acute kidney failure. Then in 1960, with the development of the Teflon shunt, long-term dialysis became available for people whose kidneys had totally failed. Seattle was where it all began,” Blagg said, adding that it was Dr. Belding Scribner who developed the Teflon shunt.
This small, Teflon tube enabled blood to be diverted from one channel to another in the process of hemodialysis. According to Blagg, it was the biggest medical development in saving patients with kidney failure.
“That shunt changed everything,” he said.
In 1962, Scribner started the world’s first outpatient dialysis facility, the Seattle Artificial Kidney Center, later renamed Northwest Kidney Centers. Thanks to his newly developed shunt, hemodialysis became available to nearly any patient with kidney failure — acute or chronic. It allowed for the procedure to be completed at home and led to nation-wide Medicare coverage of the treatment in 1973.
“Now [hemodialysis] is widely used for all treatment. Most get treated in the hospital, but there’s increasing use in homes,” Blagg said, adding that patients must undergo hemodialysis at least three times a week. “It’s certainly manageable. The longest surviving [dialysis] patient in the world came to us in 1963. He was on dialysis for 26 years and then got a successful kidney transplant.”
Kidney transplants are the surest method of treatment for kidney failure, Blagg said. However, the chances of finding a matching kidney are often slim. Therefore, many patients turn to hemodialysis.
When he was a practicing doctor, hemodialysis and facilitating the treatment at home was Blagg’s specialty.
Working among the best nephrologists in the world, Blagg spent more than 30 years developing the science through the UW Medical School and Northwest Kidney Centers, which has changed in scope — and name — over the years. Today, he is emeritus executive director of Northwest Kidney Centers.
On May 21, the organization will host its annual Breakfast of Hope fundraiser at the Seattle Westin Hotel. Blagg will be present at the event, along with other esteemed doctors in the field. All funds raised at the breakfast will go toward patient treatment, public education on kidney disease and supporting research at the UW.
According to Blagg, Seattle doctors are on the verge of several medical developments, all of which could greatly benefit from private funds.
“We’re very interested in pushing home hemodialysis and the development of new machines. Also, new technology in kidney transplantation is being encouraged as far as possible,” he said.
Yet public awareness of kidney disease is probably the fundraiser’s primary goal.
Kidney problems are widely preventable if individuals maintain a healthy diet, exercise regularly, avoid smoking and keep their blood-pressure down. Diabetes is another key contributor. Yet many people do not know they have kidney disease until the organ begins to fail.
“The kidney center says that one in seven adults has kidney disease, but most don’t know it. It’s a silent disease,” Blagg said, which makes raising awareness for it all the more important.
The Breakfast of Hope is from 7:30 to 8:45 a.m., tomorrow, May 21, in the Grand Ballroom of the Seattle Westin Hotel. For more information, visit: www.nwkidney.org.