Developing alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs post organ transplant

Kisha Sivanathan

Researcher: Kisha Sivanathan

Kisha Sivanathan is leading the way to develop an alternative to heavy reliance on pharmaceutical drugs post organ transplant with her intensive stem cell research.

Since completing her PhD in August 2016, Kisha has not only received the WREA award for her discoveries, but also recently received her first independent project grant to extend the scope of her studies in stem cell research, immunology and transplantation. 

Kisha’s goal is to reduce the reliance on pharmaceutical drugs which cause a lot of side effects for transplant patients, and one of the long-term side effects is cancer. 

“The problem with transplanting an organ is that the body will recognise this as foreign so will start mounting an immune response to the transplanted organ, which can cause the organ to be rejected. To avoid this from happening, patients are given pharmaceutical drugs which control the rejection response.

“But this is not the best strategy for long term success. In a transplant situation, generally the inflammation occurs only at the rejection site but because pharmaceutical drugs are not site specific to the inflammation area, it causes the whole immune response to become suppressed, resulting in patients having overall declined immunity.”

The optimum outcome of transplantation is to prevent rejection and promote a condition known as transplantation tolerance, which means the patient can accept the new organ, without needing a long term prescription of drugs. 

“One attractive property of adult mesenchymal stem cells is that they can control the inflammatory response and hone in on the specific site of the inflammation, creating a localized suppression, and not a global suppression of the immune response.”

Kisha was drawn to immunology research after her undergraduate degree in biomedical science when an opportunity opened up for an honours research project involving stem cell research. 

“Honours is an important year. It’s where you really know whether you like to do research or not.”

It appears research agreed with Kisha. She continued on with her PhD where she was given the opportunity to attend international and national conferences, liaising with the best in the industry. 

“During my studies I have gone to many prestigious institutions including Howard where I presented my research and met with potential post-doc supervisors for the future. Without the support from the University of Adelaide I wouldn’t have been able to do my PhD. It’s a lot of commitment, determination and basically talking to your mind, but you have to come to a point where you decide, okay, that’s it.”

Now, Kisha is determined to continue her research at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

“My project which has just been approved is specifically looking at the way we can improve the potency of these mesenchymal stem cells. I found that giving the stem cells a boost before injecting them into a patient will increase their function. The concept is that if we prime them before injecting them, then we have activated and boosted cells, so they start secreting more of these proteins and molecules that suppress the immune response which is what we want in a transplant setting.”

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