After he was diagnosed with kidney disease 15 years ago, attorney Ken Kleinberg was forced to cope with a malady that, as he says, “has no known causes.” What was particularly surprising, however, was how little was being done to find out about it. “In the West Coast of the U.S., there was no kidney research center,” Kleinberg says.

That is changing, thanks to the organization he founded in 2002, with help from Dr. Vito Campese of USC. The University Kidney Research Organization is establishing at USC’s Keck School of Medicine what is envisioned as the premier national center for kidney research.

On Sept. 12, UKRO will host its annual benefit dinner at the Beverly Hilton, with Michael Feinstein performing, and ABC-TV news anchor Phillip Palmer as emcee. Co-chairs include Mark Itkin, Toby Keith, and Paula Wagner; Jack Black and Natalie Cole are among those on the board of directors.

Chronic kidney disease affects nearly 25 million Americans, Kleinberg says, all the more urgent because so many people don’t know they have it. In 1999, for instance, Kleinberg suddenly became ill while attending the Mip TV conference in France. When he got back to Los Angeles he saw a doctor, who immediately diagnosed the kidney problem. He went to Campese, who told him it often developed into something more serious. Kleinberg received a transplant in 2007.

Kleinberg says there is at least a 30% chance the disease will come back and attack a new kidney. And while humans have two kidneys, the illness can affect both.

The center, he says, will require about $40 million to $50 million. UKRO made a $3.5 million pledge to establish it, with a matching contribution from the Keck School of Medicine. He hopes that, given how widespread the disease is, it will become a greater part of the philanthropic consciousness.

“For whatever reason, kidney disease is kind of a stepchild that has been neglected” among other medical causes, he says. “We want to change that, and are changing that.”

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