Dennis Fenwick, and his wife, Martha Lewis © UC Regents
Dennis Fenwick and his wife, Martha Lewis.

Posted April 10, 2013

Fate prevented Dennis Fenwick from donating a kidney to his son Brian Womack Miles, but his support for regenerative medicine could help provide a more permanent benefit for Brian and others suffering from kidney failure.

Fenwick, an attorney and West Sacramento resident, is a significant philanthropic supporter of research led by UC Davis scientists Alice Tarantal and Jan Nolta that aims to repair and replace kidneys using the body’s own stem cells.

The studies that Fenwick helped to fund have advanced the goal of rebuilding and regenerating kidneys.

“When I first spoke with Dr. Nolta she was fully committed to helping me achieve my goal of developing a kidney from my son’s own cells,” Fenwick says. “Dr. Nolta noted that to get major funding, proof-of-concept would need to be demonstrated, and would require private donations. I asked, ‘What can I do to help?’”

Fenwick’s son, a father and Presbyterian minister who has worked as a pediatric oncology chaplain, received his second transplanted kidney four years ago. Doctors projected it may last a dozen years, after which Brian will need a third transplant or dialysis for life.

The studies that Fenwick helped to fund have advanced the goal of rebuilding and regenerating kidneys.

Brian was 2 years old when doctors discovered he had only a single, shrunken kidney with an incorrectly attached ureter. An operation helped the organ function until he was about 18, when he received his aunt’s kidney. When it began to fail 12 years later, Fenwick and Brian’s stepmother, Martha Lewis, learned their own kidneys were incompatible for donation. Brian’s wife’s kidney was compatible, and he received it after two years of dialysis and multiple surgeries.

Hoping to avoid a third transplant for his son, Fenwick turned his focus to the UC Davis Stem Cell Program. His support helped create effective ways to remove cells from kidneys to obtain a clean “scaffold” on which healthy cells can be grown.

Tarantal and Nolta have made cell lines from skin samples, which Tarantal hopes to develop into the types of kidney cells needed for the scaffold.

“I am anxiously waiting for progress reports,” Fenwick says.