"If these drugs are found to specifically block transplant rejection without generally suppressing the immune system, it would be very exciting."
Associate professor of biology
A new organ can save the life of a transplant recipient. However, the drugs that suppress the immune system and prevent the body from rejecting the transplant can have debilitating side effects.
Associate Professor of Biology Ken Field is studying a possible alternative to this dire choice. When he first came to Bucknell, Field and his students were studying the effects of a class of anti-cancer drugs on immune system cancers called lymphomas. In the process, Field made the fortuitous discovery that the drugs have subtle effects on healthy, non-cancerous immune system cells.
Intrigued by the effect, Field continued the exploration, eventually testing the effects of the drugs, called farnesyltransferase inhibitors, on mice that had received skin transplants. His preliminary results indicate that the drugs prevent transplant rejection without suppressing the entire immune system. Any possible clinical trials are still several years of research away, but the findings so far are encouraging. "If these drugs are found to specifically block transplant rejection without generally suppressing the immune system, it would be very exciting," Field says.
Field is spending the 2009-10 academic year on sabbatical at the Institute for Medical Immunology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium to learn more about transplantation and rejection (and French). "What I want to do after I return from Belgium, and this is one of my main reasons for going, is to figure out how this drug works," he says, "because until we know the mechanism, it's hard to predict how effective it's going to be or what its possible side effects will be."
Field got his start in research as an undergraduate in biochemistry at the University of Vermont. He loved the experience and came to Bucknell to share the excitement of discovery with his own students. Field's love of teaching may make his grant-writing experience even more gratifying. His first proposal to fund his current research was rejected partly because the reviewers felt that the work was too difficult for undergraduates. By the time Field submitted the proposal a third time, he was able to show that not only had Bucknell undergraduates successfully performed the techniques involved, but they also had gotten promising preliminary results. The National Cancer Institute recently funded the research.
"We really have outstanding students at Bucknell," Field says. "As long as they are put into a nurturing environment and given the opportunity to work through problems on their own, it's amazing the things they can accomplish." If Field's research successes continue, those accomplishments may one day even include major contributions to the lives of transplant recipients.
Posted Sept. 9, 2009