January 14, 2002
Making His Mark
By Eric Rangus firstname.lastname@example.org
Kenneth Kokko was named an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine
last July. But this is not his first affiliation with Emory. Far from
After graduating from Dartmouth College in 1988 with his bachelors
degree, Kokko entered the School of Medicine that fall. He graduated with
an M.D./Ph.D degree four years later (one of only five students to do
so that year), completed his residency here, then earned a three-year
fellowship in Emorys nephrology division (nephrology is the study
of kidney disease).
Kokko spent the second of those three years as Emorys chief medical
resident. Following the completion of his fellowship, Kokko ascended in
2001 to his current position in the renal division, which stations him
primarily at the VA Medical Center, although he spends time at Emory Hospital
Kokko isnt the first member of his family to make his mark at Emory.
His father, Hauha, was chair of the Department of Medicine for 13 years.
Hauha Kokko was, in fact, the first person to graduate from Emory with
an M.D./Ph.D. degree. The elder Kokkos presence made for an interesting
situation when his son became a student here.
It was a little awkward the first year, but then, once people realized
I wasnt running off crying to daddy every time things didnt
go my way, they realized we were two separate entities, said the
younger Kokko. We made an agreement that we wouldnt talk business
I think, if anything, youre probably treated a little more
stringently that everyone else because people dont want to show
favoritism, he continued. So instead of doing that, they actually
go the other way.
Kokko didnt coast on Dads coattails then, and he isnt
doing it now. His area of expertise is kidney transplantation, and he
already has earned two research grants: a three-year VA Research Career
Development Award and a two-year grant from the National Kidney Foundation
called the Robert Schrier Young Investigator Grant.
The focus of his current research is on improved drug therapy for kidney
The problem with the medicines we have today is that they have
very bad side effects, Kokko said. They could bring on diabetes
and even thin the skin, and they often result in weight gain. Among the
most serious side effects, Kokko said, is a thinning of the bone, something
that adversely affects older transplant recipients.
We are keeping people alive for 10 or 15 years with transplants,
and some of them are experiencing bone fractures and other problems [because
of the drugs], Kokko said.
Kokkos goal is to develop drugs so that the body can accept transplanted
organs without causing dangerous side effects. While he focuses on the
kidney, Kokkos work can be applied to other organs. He currently
is testing a compound in mice that have received a transplanted heart
(a transplanted kidney would be too small to study satisfactorily). This
compound is an antibody that eliminates cells that attack transplanted
The heart makes a good model of kidney transplantation because
the problem with transplanting kidneys into mice is that you cant
tell when the kidney is rejected, Kokko said.
In only a few months, Kokko has made significant progress. Without the
experimental drug therapy, hearts transplanted into genetically mismatched
mice (many human organ transplant recipients do not match genetically
with donors) are rejected in about seven days. With the drug therapy,
these hearts last up to three months.
Despite the fact that his father was a doctor and he knew many doctors
growing up, medicine was not Kokkos first area of study; his early
college career was spent studying astrophysics. As part of Dartmouths
program, he logged six months research time at the MDM Observatory, which
is located 50 miles west of Tucson, Ariz. Beautiful country, but not an
atmosphere that offers much of a social life.
Astronomy sounds very glamorous, but you never actually look through
a telescope, Kokko said. You spend all your time sitting in
a red room at night looking at computer screens and typing in coordinates
of objects that you cant visualize. The telescope tracks them through
the night and collects data. Its not until about a month later that
you start downloading images onto the computer and start seeing what youre
looking at. It was a lot different than I thought it was going to be.
After testing a bit of astronomy on the front line, Kokko decided it
wasnt for him. I realized I needed more interaction with humans,
So Kokko began exploring other career choices. His junior year in college,
Each summer, Emory medical students rotate among the schools different
laboratories. At a Christmas party for the renal division, Kokko met Doug
Eaton, then a professor in the division. Eaton invited Kokko to spend
a summer in his lab, which he did.
It was in Eatons lab where Kokko completed his dissertation, which
involved investigating how certain hormones regulate the transport of
sodium and chloride across the kidney. Kokkos early work is related
to his current research, in that hormones can affect the growth and differentiation
of white-blood cells. Those white-blood cells modulate the immune system
and play a major role in whether transplanted kidneys are accepted.
The care of transplant patients is relatively complicated, and
it is still a very specialized area, Kokko said. Emorys transplant
center follows about 2,000 kidney-transplant patients, Kokko added, making
it the eighth largest in the country.
Kidney transplants are one of the most commonly transplanted organs and
one of the most successful. There is a 92-percent one-year survival rate,
and kidneysdepending on whether they have been taken from cadavers
or living donorscan have half-lives ranging from eight to 15 years.
Still, Kokko said, there is room for improvementimprovement he
hopes to find through his drug therapy.
With some of the newer medicines, we dont know if those numbers are going to improve, but they certainly should, he said.
Emory University, Copyright 2002