Kicking off a career in kidney research

A 2023 headshot of The Jackson Laboratory's Rafiou Agoro. The Jackson Laboratory's Rafiou Agoro. Photo credit: Tiffany Laufer

Rafiou Agoro, Ph.D., is set on unlocking the secrets of a primary organ: the kidney. Agoro believes this mineral-filtering organ is the key to understanding chronic kidney disease, anemia, heart disease and more.

Joining the league 

Jackson Laboratory (JAX) Assistant Professor Rafiou Agoro, Ph.D., understands discipline and dedication required to succeed within both sports and science. A longtime lover of soccer, he is an active participant in adult leagues. While the sport is a great way to make friends and spend time with them, Agoro also uses the games as an active exercise in leadership, persistence and repetition.

“Soccer has taught me decision-making, especially when your team is depending on you,” says Agoro. “In a game, what you determine in a split second leads to different outcomes. Like any experiment, you must make an educated choice based on what you have practiced and experienced and be ready to react. One small decision can have a huge consequence on result.”

Whether on the pitch or at the bench, Agoro recognizes that any time you step on the field or start a new project, there is the chance for loss. A win today does not guarantee a win tomorrow. Resilience remains an important theme as he starts the next chapter of his career.  

“Science is, at the end of the day, difficult and challenging,” says Agoro. “We need to keep a positive mindset to make sure that if we come in on Monday, and our experiments did not go as planned, we are ready to show up on Tuesday.”

Fundamental drills

Agoro’s research is centered around the kidney. By studying this mineral-filtering organ, he intends to further discern why people develop chronic kidney-related diseases such as anemia (a condition where the blood produces a low amount of healthy red blood cells). The Agoro lab will determine why the risk of acquiring anemia and its subtypes increases with age. 

With more than 30 cell types, the kidney is responsible for filtering the blood, removing waste via urine and balancing mineral levels. When any part of this delicate system becomes imbalanced, problems arise for other players in the body, mainly the heart and blood supply chain. Agoro intends to develop a deep understanding of kidney mechanics and then determine a way to manipulate its system to address disease states induced by mineral insufficiencies. 

“My philosophy is the kidney is the pioneer organ that controls our whole physiology,” says Agoro. “The lab will be focusing on leveraging the physiology of the kidney to prevent chronic kidney diseases but also other diseases in the heart and bone that are tied to its mechanisms.”

Agoro plans to investigate another important and common contributor to anemia, iron deficiency. He hopes his research will reveal a method to reverse the kidney filtering process to help augment anemic patient’s blood with the iron they need. Agoro believes if he can better understand the signals that initiate and maintain proper kidney filtration, he will be able to reverse this process and add back some iron into the blood of anemic patients. 

“How iron is excreted or reabsorbed in the kidney is not well understood. I am interested in identifying and defining the signaling pathway that regulate iron reabsorption in the kidney, a feature that is critical in iron-deficient anemic cases. If it is possible to remove iron from the urine to deliver it back to the blood, then we can improve iron deficiency anemia,” says Agoro. 

Learning the mechanics 

While still kidney-driven, another aspect of Agoro’s work will focus on phosphate, a mineral which when observed in large amounts in the blood leads to a condition called hyperphosphatemia. Known to be a symptom of chronic kidney disease, hyperphosphatemia is not an outwardly presenting indication, but can lead to vascular calcification (large deposits of minerals in the circulatory system). These deposits can settle in the arteries which increases blood pressure and put patients at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Researching how this surplus occurs within the organ responsible for filtering phosphate, he will be able to provide better insights into how this imbalance perpetuates heart disease. 

“If we can deeply understand how the kidney works in term of excreting and getting rid of phosphate, we can prevent hyperphosphatemia,” says Agoro. 

Drafting the dream team

Along with improving anemic and chronic kidney disease mouse and cellular models, Agoro plans on using an array of genomic and proteomic analysis tools. He is currently developing a multi-organ multi-omics sequencing technology to help measure minute protein changes occurring in various tissues. As anemic patients can experience sudden and severe red blood cell fluctuations during brief windows of time, this type of multi-omics technology will permit more accurate data collection and analysis of these events in real-time. 

“By using a tool that can provide full proteomic analysis in multiple tissues, we can try to understand the dynamics that underlie protein changes and drive anemic crises,” says Agoro.

Fostering an environment for scientific discovery, Agoro is excited to add to his team, begin working with his fellow JAX researchers and forge new partnerships with other research institutions. His lab will be a hub for scientific thought, motivation and collaboration. As his exploration of the kidney continues, Agoro believes it will lead to a clinical future where his research findings are actively being implemented in the clinic to improve patient outcomes.

“I believe in promoting that scientific ideas can come from everyone in the lab. Motivating people to bring up ideas is part of my philosophy,” says Agoro. “JAX is the right environment for the next step in my career.  With the ability to leverage its high profile among the research community, I will be able to collaborate with many other institutions early in my career. It is very motivating.”