Kanishka Mohib, PhD, is passionate about transplantation. “Transplantation provides a cure,” he says. “When someone gets a transplanted heart, liver or kidney, you’re giving them life. You’re giving them a cure. Few fields can say that they have that kind of impact on patients.”
As a researcher, Dr. Mohib spends a considerable amount of time in the lab. “Some of that stereotype is true,” he says. “But I’m at a center where researchers are also interacting on a daily basis with surgeons, doctors, nurses and transplant coordinators.” This interaction is key to making progress. “Transplant physicians and surgeons host seminars and talk about what they’re doing, what they’re finding. That has an impact on our research. There’s a lot of collaboration in that sense.”
Dr. Mohib’s interest in transplantation began as an interest in immunology–the study of the body’s natural defense system against invaders like viruses and bacteria. “During my undergraduate studies at the Canadian University of Waterloo, I majored in biology and did my honors project on the fish immune system,” he says. That love for immunology spurred an interest in transplantation, a closely related field. “A lot of important discoveries in immunology have been made through research in transplantation. That was a huge draw for me.”
After moving on to London, Ontario, a hub of transplantation in Canada, for his master’s degree, Dr. Mohib eventually received his PhD in microbiology and immunology for studying human stem cells at the University of Ottawa. This course of study would set the stage for the research he is conducting today at the University of Pittsburgh’s Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute with the assistance of a research grant from the American Society of Transplantation.
Stem Cells and The Lure of Immune Tolerance
Human stem cells are the chameleon of human biology. “They have this natural ability to evade the immune system and induce a state of immune tolerance,” says Dr. Mohib. “We were trying to figure out how they do it.” Finding these answers are essential because the immune system is one of the most important factor in determining transplant success or failure. “The immune system can recognize foreign cells, and its job is to attack and destroy those foreign cells,” says Dr. Mohib. When the immune system attacks the foreign cells of a transplanted organ, the body can reject the organ, causing the transplant to fail. To prevent rejections, transplant recipients must take powerful immune suppressive medications that can have severe side effects. “We’re still trying to understand how to get the immune system to cooperate with a transplanted organ,” he says.
However, the immune system isn’t all bad for transplanted organs, and Dr. Mohib’s current research is trying to harness the good qualities of the immune system to help prolong the health and success of transplanted organs. “For a long time, the transplant community has understood that B cells produced antibodies that helped the immune system attack the organ, resulting in rejection,” says Dr. Mohib. “Our lab recently discovered that not all B cells do the same thing. Some of these B cells are actually beneficial because they have specialized “regulatory” ability that dampen the immune response and can prevent rejection. We think that these regulatory B cells could be a key player in transplant success.”
What does this mean for transplant patients? More successful transplants, better quality of life and the possibility of not needing to take anti-rejection medications.
Part of Dr. Mohib’s goals for transplantation research include reducing the need for the anti-rejection medications that transplant recipients must take for life. “These drugs are suppressing the body’s natural defense system against everything, even cancer,” he says. “I think most researchers are trying to move toward something in the field where we can use the immune system itself and manipulate it in a way that promotes transplant tolerance, rather than rejection.” A breakthrough of that nature would go far beyond transplantation to help advance other fields, such as treatment of autoimmune disease. “The potential applications coming out of transplantation and immunology research are far reaching,” says Dr. Mohib. “It’s exciting to think about the possibilities.”