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Postdoctoral scholar receives grant to research underlying cause of diabetic kidney disease

Siddharth Sunilkumar, PhD, postdoctoral scholar in Penn State College of Medicine’s Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology, was awarded a three-year, $221,652 grant from the American Diabetes Association (ADA) to identify interventions that address the underlying cause of diabetic kidney disease.

A head-and-shoulders image of Siddharth Sunilkumar, PhD, standing outside with a blossoming tree in the background

Siddharth Sunilkumar, PhD

Sunilkumar’s research project aims to dive deeper into our current understanding of diabetic kidney disease. The most common long-term diabetes-related health problems involve damage to multiple organ systems, including the kidneys, eyes, heart and nervous system. This project is specifically focused on diabetic nephropathy, he explained, which happens when kidney function is compromised – and is consequently a leading cause of death.

“Presently, there is limited understanding of the molecular events whereby diabetes causes loss of kidney function, and that knowledge gap is a barrier to the design and implementation of preventive therapeutics,” Sunilkumar said. “The overarching goal for this research project is to prevent kidney complications in diabetic patients by understanding and identifying these early molecular events that contribute to the development of this disease.”

The impact of this research in terms of patient care and treatment, he added, would be significant.

Current diabetes therapies are mostly focused on controlling blood glucose levels and/or improving insulin sensitivity, but the problem with these therapies is that they fail to address the underlying cause of diabetes complications.

“By identifying and characterizing novel proteins in specific cell types within the kidney that contribute to renal complications in diabetes, this research can further the development of therapeutics that potentially prevent kidney function deficits in diabetic patients,” Sunilkumar said.

Awards like this one from the ADA not only help College of Medicine researchers to drive discoveries that improve the lives of patients – this funding also bolsters Penn State’s historic land-grant mission to serve and lead.


Sunilkumar joined the lab of Michael Dennis, PhD, associate professor of cellular and molecular physiology and ophthalmology, in 2019 and his research work has primarily focused on exploring the role of the stress protein REDD1 in diabetes pathophysiology. The 2023 Postdoctoral Fellowship Award from the ADA will help fund his research project, “Podocyte specific activation of REDD1 in the etiology of diabetic nephropathy.”

Sunilkumar’s project as well as other work in the Dennis lab offer yet another example of the bench-to-bedside research work that College of Medicine researchers pursue every day as they take lab-based discoveries and translate them into patient therapies.

Previous work in the Dennis lab across the past decade has demonstrated a critical role for the stress response protein REDD1 in the development of diabetic complications, including retinopathy and nephropathy. The research supported by the ADA award has a significant translational impact, Sunilkumar said, as it represents the next steps in a continuum of research aimed at developing innovative therapies that specifically address the molecular cause of diabetic nephropathy – potentially offering drastic improvements to the lives of people living with diabetes.

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