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July 2010 Issue
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Spice of life for transplant patients

 Health Sciences

A University of Adelaide PhD student working to improve organ transplant success rates has been named the best young medical researcher in South Australia.

Dr Natasha Rogers has won the prestigious Ross Wishart Memorial Award, presented by the South Australian branch of the Australian Society for Medical Research.

The transplantation immunology researcher and her Queen Elizabeth Hospital colleagues are trialling an extract from the spice turmeric to counter damage caused by organ rejection.

The turmeric extract, called curcumin, has both anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which limit the damage caused by an interruption to blood flow.

"The current problem with transplants is that when an organ, such as the kidney, is taken from an organ donor, the blood flow is stopped," Dr Rogers said.

"Once transplanted into a patient, blood starts flowing through it again and this blood flow can cause further damage."

This is called ischaemia-reperfusion injury, where the sudden return of blood flow, and the immune cells and oxygen that come with it, actually damage the newly transplanted organ.

"This is a significant problem in transplantation and affects the function of a transplant so that people might have more complications, such as rejection," Dr Rogers said.

However, curcumin is not well absorbed by the body when swallowed and Dr Rogers is establishing a new technique to deliver curcumin throughout the body, using microscopic fat particles called liposomes.

They found that curcumin contained within liposomes was taken up by immune cells in the body, successfully limiting the damage caused by an interruption to blood flow.

"We certainly hope that it could be used in humans in the future, but not just for transplantation. Curcumin could potentially be applied to treat other causes of ischaemia-reperfusion injury, such as heart attacks and strokes," Dr Rogers said.

"Curcumin in this form is a safe treatment with no known side effects."

The next step will be trialling the curcumin liposomes in a mouse model of transplantation to see if it can reduce transplant organ rejection and improve transplant survival.

Dr Rogers is completing her PhD in transplantation immunology under the supervision of Dr Toby Coates from the Centre for Stem Cell Research at the University of Adelaide.

The three other finalists for the Ross Wishart Award were also either PhD students or have an undergraduate degree from the University of Adelaide.

They include surgeon Dr Rowan Valentine, who is working with his colleagues in the University's Discipline of Surgery to develop a new gel that treats the two most common complications of surgery - bleeding and scarring.

The low-cost gel, made from crab shell extracts known as chitosan, has wound healing properties and has already been successfully trialled on people who have undergone nasal surgery for sinus problems.

"Benefits of the gel include its low cost and the fact that it dissolves away in the body and does not have to be removed," Dr Valentine said.

The gel is in early trials in patients following abdominal surgery at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

Dr Valentine is doing his PhD in haemostasis and wound healing following sinus surgery.

University of Adelaide Physiology PhD student Kimberley Botting is researching the link between underweight babies and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in adulthood.

The fourth finalist, Zhi Yi Ong, who has a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree from the University of Adelaide, is looking at how junk food causes behavioural and chemical changes in the brain, similar to a drug addict.

Footnote: After this issue went to press Dr Rogers won the President's Prize for the Best Research Presentation at the annual meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Transplantation.

Story by Candy Gibson

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Dr Natasha Rogers, winner of the 2010 Ross Wishart Memorial Award

Dr Natasha Rogers, winner of the 2010 Ross Wishart Memorial Award
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