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Two Grants Awarded In Transplant Medicine

Work in this transformative area of medicine continues amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Surgeon in an operating room

While the COVID-19 pandemic remains ever present, it’s reassuring to know that other important work to save the lives of patients continues. Case in point: Last week, when we contacted Dr. Paulo Martins to ask him about his research in transplant medicine, he wasn’t immediately available – for good reason.

“I’m starting a liver transplant very soon,” he said in an email.

That is happy news for everyone connected to transplant medicine – living donors, the doctors and certainly the recipients of donated organs. COVID-19 derailed a significant number of these complicated, intricately choreographed medical procedures, according to an article published this month in The Lancet.

The hope is that these programs can resume, although as noted in the article, some will be able to recover more quickly than others. Worldwide, about 150,000 people benefited from a solid organ transplant in 2018 – far fewer than the estimated 6 million who have end-stage organ failure, according to the published analysis by France-based researchers.

Martins, the doctor with a liver transplant to do, this week received the American Society of Transplant Surgeons-CSL Behring Mid-Level Faculty Grant to support his work in “RNA Interference During Liver Machine Preservation to Improve Liver Graft Quality.” Also this week, CSL Behring awarded the American Society of Transplantation’s Career Development Research Grant to Yang Yang, Ph.D., at the University of Texas Health Science Center. The grants were announced during this week’s American Transplant Congress, which was a virtual event due to the pandemic.

Martins is an associate professor of surgery at the University of Massachusetts, where he has been a transplant surgeon and principal investigator at a transplant lab since 2013. He has published 91 peer-reviewed articles, one textbook, 16 book chapters and over 100 abstracts in scientific meeting and medical journals.

In short, Martins said he wants to prolong the life expectancy of grafts by pre-treating them before transplanting them in patients. Here’s how he answered three questions about his work:

How would you summarize your area of research interest?

“My area of interest is transplant immunology with special interest in organ preservation. We are trying to develop new strategies to improve the quality of grafts before transplantation by gene modulation. The goal is to make organs more resistant to injury.”

What would you like people to understand about transplant medicine?

“Transplantation is the ultimate treatment of organ damage. It is the last resort to fix a disease and the last hope for someone to have a second chance in life. It is transformational and gives people the time and quality of life to pursue their dreams.” 

Any thoughts about those who donate organs?

“Both living and deceased donors are true heroes and a source of inspiration to all of us. Their selflessness and courage really motivate us transplant doctors to do what we do.”

The recently awarded grants make meaningful investments in research and development in the area of transplant medicine, said Ann Leon, CSL Behring’s Director of Medical Education and Communication for Transplant.

“It is in line with our mission – to offer new hope to patients by investigating and developing therapies to address the unmet needs of transplant medicine and improve patient outcomes,” Leon said.

Yang, a post-doctoral fellow in Cynthia Ju's lab, is investigating the role of eosinophils, a type of white blood cell, in liver ischemia-reperfusion injury using various genetic mouse models. She described the research as just beginning, but with some promising signs. Her data uncovered a previously unrecognized profound effect of eosinophils in liver repair after ischemia-reperfusion injury, she said.

“The studies proposed in the current application are exciting because if successfully completed, our findings could spur the development of novel therapeutic approaches targeting eosinophils,” Yang said. “This is significant because there is currently no treatment for liver ischemia-reperfusion injury during liver transplantation.”