Dr. Sykes explains what prompted her to join NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.
“For me, the big draw in coming here was the size and scope of the organ transplant program. It’s one of the biggest in the country,” she says. To that program, Dr. Sykes has added the Columbia Center for Translational Immunology. “It’s more than a transplant program,” she says. There are now 100-plus people doing work that covers not just transplants but also basic human immunology as well as research on cancer immunotherapy and autoimmune diseases. “With all of it,” says Dr. Sykes, who has recruited 15 faculty members, each with their own team of researchers, “the goal is improving the treatment of immune-related diseases in humans.”
Dr. Sykes and her team are also exploring the possibility of using organs from other species in human patients, which, she says, would drastically cut down on the waiting time for organs from human donors. Tissue from pigs and cows has long been used for heart-valve replacement in people, but transplanting organs from animals to humans is much more challenging. The immune response to organs from another species — known as a xenograft — tends to be even stronger than with a human-to-human transplant.
To that end, the researchers have again been working with bone marrow to try to induce immune tolerance that would allow organs from one species to another to be accepted. “The animal research is moving us quickly toward our goals,” says Dr. Sykes.
Dr. Griesemer says he’s optimistic about the near future. “Every transplant patient is very thankful after surgery, but they all eventually ask when they can get off the immunosuppressant drugs — the side effects wear on them,” he says. “With this research, we are getting much closer to patients not having to take these drugs after a transplant. We’re poised for the next breakthrough.”
That progress, the kind that translates into patients leading full, healthy lives with donated organs, is exactly why Dr. Sykes says she entered the field.
“This work has been incredibly satisfying in terms of my scientific interests, but also for my medical experience,” says Dr. Sykes. “I’ve been fascinated and troubled by the challenges with organ transplantation in patients — the clinical problems are huge,” she acknowledges.
But, she adds, “there’s so much promise in this work, both in terms of achieving immune tolerance in transplant patients and, eventually, overcoming the organ shortage. I’m very excited about it.”