Researcher wins prize for body of work looking into infant heart transplants

(Edmonton) A University of Alberta researcher has been lauded by the American Society for Transplantation thanks to her work on the smallest of patients.

Lori West was awarded the Clinical Science Established Investigator Award, Professor Level in early May, for her “legendary” research contributions to the field of transplantation. Her research has shown that infants can safely have heart transplants from donors who are a different blood type or blood group.

“Normally, you need to match donor and recipient blood types for a heart transplant, but we showed some years ago those rules don’t apply to infants,” says West. “Understanding they could have an incompatible heart, a mismatched donor, opened up a potential donor pool to them that they had never had before.

“But beyond that, we studied the science of what happens to these children after they’ve had a mismatched heart transplant and we showed the immune system of the children becomes re-educated to the donor, so that they tend to remain less reactive to the donor blood group.”

West, who is a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Cardiac Transplantation, an AIberta Innovates-Health Solutions Senior Scholar and Director of Heart Transplantation Research in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, continues to conduct research in this area, trying to determine what changes within the immune system that makes it react less to the donor blood group. If researchers can figure out that mystery, it could give adult transplant patients new hope and possibilities, says West.

“We’ve been studying the immune system for a decade,” she says. “Part of our efforts are an attempt to understand how and why infant immune systems are less reactive to donor blood group antigens. If we can really understand it at the cellular and molecular level, we might be able to develop strategies by which that could be used by older patients.”

At the award ceremony, an AST representative noted West’s work was “legendary.” West said she was touched by the kind summary of her work.

“They talked about the impact of my work in transplantation,” says West, who is also a professor in pediatrics, surgery and immunology for the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. “They recognized the whole body of my work—how combining the science and the research and the clinical service has made a lasting impression on patient care.”

Earlier this year, West also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Society of Transplantation. She came to the U of A in 2005 from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

Ultimately, West would like to see a system where there are enough donor organs available for every patient who needs them. And she would like to find a way to allow the immune system to accept donor organs without the use of anti-rejection drugs.