“We have the ability to give the option of life to many people who are exceptionally sick and about to die,” says liver transplant researcher Sergio Duarte, PhD. “That is what I really like about my research — the ability to help and impact so many people.”
Fascinated by strategy tactics and inspired by an immunology professor’s enthusiasm, Dr. Duarte (who studied Biochemistry at the University of Porto in Portugal) would have never thought liver transplantation is what he would end up spending most of his time engrossed with. “At the time, I could see parallels between war or sports strategies and immunological strategies, specifically how the immune system fights infection and how the infecting agent tries to avoid the immune system.” says Dr. Duarte about his passion for and interest in the field. “A professor suggested I should take my PhD in transplantation. I looked deeper into it and I started to get excited. It was fascinating.”
Connecting Liver Transplant and Immunology
Now, at the Dumont UCLA transplant center, Dr. Duarte is in the midst of researching hepatic ischemia reperfusion injury — the inflammatory event that occurs right after liver transplant surgery and is specifically related to the lack of blood flow and oxygen to the newly harvested organ. “We focus on interactions between the extracellular matrix of the liver tissue and leukocytes (white blood cells) of the immune system,” says Dr. Duarte.
The goal of his research is to understand how the cells move into the organ and potentially target it, and how this can be diminished. “It is important to try to diminish the amount of white blood cells that are going into the organ to therefore diminish the amount of injury to the organ, which subjects it to acute rejection and, later, chronic rejection,” says Dr. Duarte.
After being awarded the 2014 American Society of Transplantation (AST) Genentech Basic Science Fellowship Grant, Dr. Duarte, with Dr. Ana Coito’s team, is focusing on inhibiting or manipulating a specific protein, matrix metalloproteinase 9 (MMP-9), through an endogenous inhibitor that a person produces in their body. “We are using gene therapy to try to increase MMP-9’s inhibitor (called TIMP 1), and, consequently, reduce the white blood cells that invade the organ with the help of MMP-9,” says Dr. Duarte.
The biggest challenge for Dr. Duarte and his team is understanding how the cell relates to its very dynamic micro-environment. “We could potentially target something early on and it has beneficial effects, but later it could not have the same beneficial effects because the environment has changed, and the cells are now relating to the environment in a different way.”
Making a Difference
Ultimately Dr. Duarte would love to have a positive impact for not only the patient, but for the clinic as well, and help reduce rejection. “I think it is an amazing field and it brings out the best in people,” says Dr. Duarte. “It creates an amazing impact on the patient’s life, and also has an impact on their family’s lives and even on the life of the donor.”