Alumna champions kidney health

August 28, 2020
Melissa West, '97, champions kidney health through partnership and innovation

Raise public awareness. Facilitate the creation of innovative technology. Convene diverse stakeholders. Melissa West, ’97, draws on these three principles daily in leading the fight against kidney disease.

“Chronic kidney disease affects 37 million Americans and 850 million people worldwide,” she said, “yet there’s not a lot of public awareness about kidney health.”

As the acting vice president for research, discovery, and innovation for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit American Society of Nephrology (ASN), West aims to change that.

“My role puts me at the intersection of patients who are experiencing kidney disease; the doctors, researchers and companies that are developing new technologies and products; government; investors; and payors,” she said. “I bring together a diverse community of people to tackle the complicated challenges associated with research and development.” 

West leads two ASN initiatives that drive treatment innovation and facilitate the passage of drugs, devices, and biologics for people with kidney disease: Kidney X, a public-private partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Kidney Health Initiative (KHI), a public-private partnership with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Under her leadership, the number of KHI member organizations has grown from 30 at the program’s inception in 2012 to more than 100 today.

When she first came to University of Richmond, West planned to pursue a pre-med track, she said. She changed her mind after taking some classes at Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

“I decided to focus on the mission-based aspect of health care instead of becoming a physician,” West said. “After studying servant leadership, I wanted to touch patients’ lives and realized there were many avenues, outside of traditional medicine, to make a difference. 

“Patients have had the greatest impact on me. Chronic kidney disease disproportionately affects minority and low-income populations who also struggle with diabetes, hypertension, and access to care. When developing new therapies and products, we must ensure treatments are accessible to all patients, not just the wealthy and well educated.”

West makes a point of inviting patients from diverse backgrounds to the table to discuss innovative technologies and treatments with the doctors, researchers, and companies developing them and the FDA that regulates the product approval.   

“A patient in a rural area, a family caring for a pediatric patient, or a working adult have different perspectives,” she said. “We want to hear their voices so the technology can meet their needs. In our community outreach, we strive to reach everyone. We write surveys on a sixth-grade level and make them available both in print and online.”

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge in COVID-19 patients experiencing kidney failure and a shortage of dialysis machines at some hospitals, West said. This further underscores the importance of her work to combat chronic kidney disease.

“My Jepson education has been critical to my success,” she said. “With its focus on ethics and mediation, it provided the tools I needed to convene diverse communities, push for change, and tackle complex problems. I am grateful to have a job I believe in that is driving change for millions of people.”