Transplantation society awards two Garvan immunologists

Two PhD students from the Grey lab were distinguished by The Transplantation Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ) at its annual conference last week - Jeanette Villanueva and Nathan Zammit. Jeanette won the prestigious Kidney Health Australia Award for the best overall laboratory-based abstract and presentation. She also won a Young Investigator Award, as did Nathan Zammit.

PhD student Jeanette Villanueva

06 July 2011

Garvan PhD student Jeanette Villanueva won one of two prestigious Kidney Health Australia Awards last week at the TSANZ (The Transplantation Society of Australia and New Zealand) annual conference.

The Kidney Health Australia Awards are judged on abstract and presentation, one being given to the best clinical, another to the best laboratory-based work. Jeanette's was considered the best laboratory-based abstract and presentation, and competed against all members of the society, rather than those in her category (people under 35).

Working in Garvan’s Transplantation Immunology lab with , Jeanette is looking at how a particular gene (TRAF2) expressed in the body’s killer T cells, affects survival of transplanted organs.

She has been working with mice that lack expression of TRAF2 in their T cells, and has found that when they receive transplanted Islets of Langerhans (clusters of insulin-producing cells), they accept the transplants long-term, sometimes over 100 days. Normal mice reject transplants in 18-20 days.

“TRAF2 is a kind of central hub of T cell action as it’s involved in lots of different signaling pathways,” said Jeanette.

“By removing it, we effectively block those pathways, but we still have to determine which of the blocked pathways is significant.”

“Although this is very early research, I had very good feedback at the conference in terms of future experiments to do.”

Jeanette will use her $1,000 prize to present her findings at a meeting in Berlin next year.

Out of the hundred or so abstracts presented by young investigators (those under age 35), 4 basic research and 4 clinical projects were selected to receive Young Investigator Awards. In addition to winning the main prize, Jeanette also received a Young Investigator Award, as did another Garvan researcher from the Grey lab, Nathan Zammit.

Working in very similar territory, Nathan looks at ways to make transplanted Islets of Langerhans invisible to the host immune system – in order to avoid rejection.

He has been doing this by altering cell signaling pathways in donor tissue by inserting anti-apoptotic genes (genes which prevent cell death) or by using pharmacological inhibitors.

“The pro-inflammatory response following transplantation is strongly driven by cell signaling pathways activated in donor tissue, providing an environment at the graft site which enhances immune attack” said Nathan.

“I wanted to see what would happen if I subdued those donor tissue pathways. So far I have found that by inhibiting two major pro-inflammatory pathways, grafts survive long term in mice, without the use of immunosupression.

“If one day my finding could be used to treat donor tissue before transplantation, that would be a big step forward. For people, it would mean having to take fewer toxic immunosuppressive drugs.”

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