Dr. Ian Alwayn
Inflammation, Infection & Immunity
Cutting wait times for organ transplants:
Each year, hundreds of people in Canada die while waiting for an organ transplant. Sadly, many organs that might have been used to save lives have to be discarded because they are not healthy enough to withstand the damage caused by the transplant process. Dr. Ian Alwayn is determined to protect donor organs from this damage – called ischemic reperfusion injury – so they can be successfully transplanted into the recipients who need them so badly.
“We’re developing a new technology to protect donor organs from ischemic reperfusion injury,” says Dr. Alwayn, associate professor of surgery at Dalhousie Medical School and surgical lead of the multi-organ transplant program at the QEII Health Sciences Centre. As he explains, this injury occurs when the organ is put into the recipient’s body after a period of time on ice: “The sudden exposure to the recipient’s blood triggers a series of immune and inflammatory responses that damage the organ.”
Healthy organs are able to tolerate the stresses of reperfusion, while less healthy organs are susceptible to serious damage that may compromise their function. “It’s getting harder to find healthy organs to transplant,” Dr. Alwayn notes, adding that fatty liver disease has become an especially pressing problem.
Dr. Alwayn and his team of graduate students have developed small proteins, or peptides, that are capable of penetrating the cells of donor organs. They attach a cargo of therapeutic molecules to these cell-penetrating peptides, which transport the molecules into the cells to protect them from inflammatory damage. “We believe that treating organs with these special peptides while they’re on ice could prevent a great deal of the reperfusion damage,” he says. “This would allow us to use a lot of organs that are currently not suitable.”
At the same time, Dr. Alwayn is working with Dalhousie physicists to create a handheld device for gauging the health of a fatty liver before deciding to transplant or discard the organ. “Ultimately, I want to ensure the optimal health of every organ we transplant, so patients have the best possible outcomes.”