For Natasha Rogers, MD, PhD, a career in research wasn’t the first thing on her mind when she started medical school in her home country of Australia. After trying internal medicine and then nephrology, a specialty that focuses primarily on the kidneys, Dr. Rogers discovered a love of research. Today, she’s a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Thomas Starzl Institute, examining factors relating to kidney injury during the transplantation process.
The Push for Transplantation
“When I trained as a nephrology fellow, I was based at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where the first successful kidney transplant in Australia took place in 1965,” says Dr. Rogers. “It was a pioneering event in Australia.” This, along with a well-known division chief with an international reputation of clinical excellence, led Queen Elizabeth Hospital to become the epicenter of transplantation in Australia. “If you want to study or practice organ transplantation, you went there,” says Dr. Rogers. Not surprisingly, that environment piqued her interest in organ transplantation research.
“My program wanted everyone to have exposure to basic science research,” she says. “I just fell in love with it. I didn’t have a fixed idea about what I wanted to do, which let me be open to discovering a love for research.” Unfortunately, basic science research is a difficult professional path, with decreasing funding and support for the critical work scientists are doing. “Both of my parents were scientists and were horrified that I wanted to do basic science research,” says Dr. Rogers. “The funding just isn’t there to support it and they knew it would be difficult.” Dr. Rogers was ready for the challenge if it meant she could follow her calling.
A Big Move
While Australia’s organ donation and transplantation programs have international recognition, the funding challenges were proving to be difficult to surmount. “I felt that if I really wanted to be serious about it, I needed to get to a bigger place that had more happening in basic science,” says Dr. Rogers. She received a grant from the Australian Government that would allow her to travel to the United States to gain experience in U.S. laboratories. So, Dr. Rogers and her husband packed up their two children – the youngest just 8 weeks old at the time – and moved across the world to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to further her research career. She has also received funding from the American Society of Transplantation.
Protecting Transplanted Organs
Dr. Rogers’s research at the University of Pittsburgh examines the potential damage done to a kidney during transplantation. “When a kidney is taken from a donor, you cut off the blood supply,” says Dr. Rogers. “There is a certain amount of damage that occurs then, and when you implant the kidney in the patient and reinstate the blood supply.” The theory, says Dr. Rogers, is that an injured kidney produces a certain protein that can impact the success of a kidney transplant. “We are trying to determine if increased levels of that protein can cause a kidney transplant to fail, and whether blocking that protein can help protect the kidney and help the transplant be successful longer.”
Beyond helping make transplants successful, Dr. Rogers has an eye on improving transplantation as a field. That begins with funding research. “Transplantation has made some incredible advancements in the past 50 years, but there is still much to be done, and it starts in the lab, with basic science research,” say Dr. Rogers. She hopes to see more funding for basic science research that addresses the chronic health issues that lead patients to organ transplantation, like chronic kidney disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Even more, we need to start the conversation about organ donation long before a terminal catastrophic event. “There’s a common misconception about what transplantation involves and the emotional issues involved for loved ones who are deciding to donate organs,” says Dr. Rogers. “Australia had initiated a registry for organ donors to join, so that the family didn’t have to make the decision. It’s not an emotional process. Making the process less difficult for loved ones starts with addressing organ donation as a community.”