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Former NFL player: Let’s step up our defense against kidney disease

By Gary Burley

As a 10-year National Football League veteran, I learned that the fastest way to a quarterback is a straight line. So, let me get straight to the point of why I am writing this.

It’s time for our country to make a serious investment to develop new ways to treat kidney disease – including an artificial kidney or new treatment remedies that could allow people to safely receive care at home or work. My own journey has opened my eyes to the need for solutions.

Playing in the NFL will teach you how to take a hit, literally. But as a defensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals and the Atlanta Falcons I never took a hit like the one I did when I was getting chemotherapy in my fight against cancer in 2012. The chemotherapy and a history of high blood pressure damaged my kidneys, and I was placed on the waiting list to receive a transplant.

I waited for three years, patiently attending dialysis appointments, until I finally got my match. I’m one of the lucky ones. Right now in our country, kidney disease impacts 37 million people, and for the nearly three-quarters of a million people who require a kidney transplant, they have to get in line behind 100,000 other Americans already on the waiting list.

Dialysis treatment, the only other therapy available for people with kidney failure, saves lives and is no doubt a necessary piece in treating people with kidney disease. However, nearly 60 percent of people who start hemodialysis today will die within five years. I was raised to believe that in America, we could be anything or do anything we wanted, and I think this ideal still holds true even for tough medical challenges.

Fortunately, I am not alone in this belief. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is committed to accelerating the process of developing solutions for kidney health as well as supporting a one-of-a-kind effort to create the first artificial kidney. President Trump signed the Executive Order on Advancing American Kidney Health last July, and work has already begun to jump start solutions, thanks to HHS, the American Society of Nephrology, and KidneyX.

Now, more than ever, we need the investment of this public-private partnership. Millions of Americans have been infected with the COVID-19 virus – and millions more are physically distancing themselves from school, work, friends, and loved ones if they are in a high-risk category, such as kidney patients. The pandemic is especially difficult for those on dialysis who must spend 16 hours a week at a clinic and are not able to socially distance.  Preliminary research shows that people suffering with severe cases of the virus are now showing signs of kidney damage and may lose kidney function permanently. The pandemic has highlighted the need to press forward with medical innovation on many fronts.

Through a series of prize competitions, KidneyX works with researchers, innovators, and investors to develop breakthrough remedies. The company distributes awards to teams who work to bring innovative strategies to caring for people with kidney disease. Imagine the difference it would make to patients if they could safely access life-saving therapies without risking their health to COVID-19 by traveling to doctor’s offices, hospitals, or dialysis centers.

The good news is, we can move beyond imagining it. This work is ongoing but additional funding from Congress would truly accelerate development. Our own Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby was successful last year in acquiring necessary funds for KidneyX in a year-end spending bill. With the need for health solutions higher than ever, we should be investing in and encouraging the kind of development that KidneyX has been working towards. Advocates are hoping that Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services will allocate ​an additional $200 million for KidneyX that will be used to develop the artificial kidney, similar to how we are investing in getting other therapies and vaccines quickly to COVID-19 patients. This is a small down payment on the future health and success of millions of Americans.

One of the many things I learned playing in the NFL was then when you take a hit, you get back up and play the next down. Despite the hits I took when I battled cancer and received my kidney transplant, I was able to get back up through the help of excellent doctors and health professionals. I owe it to them and to everyone still on that transplant wait list to continue fighting for the necessary treatment solutions. I hope Congress will hear the call to fund and support KidneyX, and spur what could be one of the most ambitious medical breakthroughs of our time.

Gary Burley is a former professional football player and the founder of Pro Start Academy, which mentors young athletes and grooms them for success on and off the field. He lives in Birmingham.