Dr. Carmen A. Peralta is an award-winning research scientist who is dedicated to finding a way to lower the staggering rates of end-stage kidney disease among U.S. Latinos. (Photo/Courtesy LaGrant Comm)

Helping Hands: For one doctor, reducing high kidney disease rates among Latinos is life’s work

On any given day, Dr. Carmen Peralta might shuffle between seeing patients at her clinic and spending hours in the research lab. And as an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco, Peralta spends hours in the classroom, sharing her utmost passion with students: finding an effective way to reduce kidney disease rates among U.S. Latinos.

“It’s an issue that we have to take seriously now,” says Dr. Peralta, a native of Baranquilla, Colombia. “The problem of kidney disease will only continue to get worse in the Hispanic population and we don’t have any long-term strategies to tackle it.”

Dr. Peralta – who was recently honored with a $40,000 prize as one of ten recipients of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s “Young Leadership Award” for her research – is concerned with finding a way to reliably detect early kidney disease. She has focused her work primarily on U.S. Latinos and African-Americans, both groups for whom kidney disease has become a severe problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hispanics have 1.5 times the rate of kidney failure compared to non-Hispanic whites and Dr. Peralta is determined to shift research from detection to prevention.

“We have challenged the current belief that race differences are only seen in advanced chronic kidney disease,” explains Dr. Peralta.“My research shows that race differences in kidney function loss appear very early and that they are not explained by traditional risk factors.”

Dr. Carmen Peralta was selected from a pool of over 800 applicants as a recipient of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Young Leader award.

Dr. Carmen Peralta (l) was selected from a pool of over 800 applicants as a recipient of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Young Leader award.

By examining traditional markers for kidney disease like creatinine levels in urine, blood cystatin C and urine protein, Dr. Peralta has helped improve early identification of at-risk Latinos for end-stage kidney disease.

“People once thought that suffering from diabetes or a heart attack was a death sentence – and now we know, with medical care and medication, that’s not the case,” says Dr. Peralta, who attributes the high kidney disease among Latinos to lack of familiarity with the ailment, often resulting in a trip to the doctor when the disease is in its advanced stages. “My hope is to do the same for chronic kidney disease.”

For Dr. Peralta, becoming an innovator in the medical field hasn’t been without challenge. She left her home and parents in Colombia at the age of 16, to study biology at Barry University in Miami. Scholarship in hand, Peralta eventually transferred to Rice University in Texas, where community service gave her the opportunity to see how her interest in medicine could have a direct impact on the Latino community. Determined to attend medical school in the United States – despite the 1 percent acceptance rate for international students – Dr. Peralta applied to and was accepted to Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, Maryland.

“I didn’t have any money to my name,” recalls the 38-year-old, who credits a mentor who co-signed her school loans as helping her achieve “the impossible.” And despite being mistaken for a member of her teaching hospital’s cleaning staff, Dr. Peralta stayed true to her dream of one day helping reduce kidney disease rates among her fellow Latinos.

“I think I just realized that no one was doing anything to help our community that was so in need of medical attention,” says Dr. Peralta, who says that her patients often thank her for communicating to them in Spanish. “I was passionate about it back then and I know I will be for the rest of my life, both in clinical care and research.”

So even as Dr. Peralta sees patients – many of whom are uninsured – she continues to work towards creating medical solutions that will target the people about whom she cares so much.

“I want to think beyond current assumptions about kidney disease and the way it affects Latino patients,” she says.

“My calling is to help Hispanics understand this disease and prevent it from being a burden for them and their families.”

%d bloggers like this: