Meet the inaugural winners of the Di Poce Research Scholars Awards: (L to R) Dr. Deepali Kumar, Dr. Nazia Selzner, Dr. Tereza Martinu, Dr. Ana Konvalinka, Dr. Golnaz Karoubi
“Disbelief…honored… humbled ….and grateful”.
Those are a few of the reactions from five UHN scientists upon learning they are the inaugural winners of the 2023 Di Poce Research Scholars Awards to support women researchers in transplantation. The awards represent a unique $2-million investment in transplantation research.
“These awards are meant to recognize and support women researchers, to enable and promote the highest quality of research and innovation from some of our talented and internationally recognized faculty in the Ajmera Transplant Centre”, says Dr. Atul Humar, Director of UHN’s Ajmera Transplant Centre, “The Ajmera Transplant Centre prides itself on efforts to promote equity, diversity and inclusion in all of our endeavors.”
The award funds will be used both for research costs and for salary support to allow applicants to have more protected time for research.
“It means that I’ll be able to devote time advancing transplant research and importantly, training the next generation of women researchers in transplant science.”, says Dr. Deepali Kumar, Director of Transplant Infectious Diseases at UHN and Clinician Investigator at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute (TGHRI). Dr. Kumar’s research focuses on the prevention and treatment of viral infections post-transplant.
“I hope to be able to pay this forward by providing young women from under-represented groups with an opportunity to learn and apply exciting tissue engineering approaches to transplantation research.”, says co-winner Dr. Golnaz Karoubi, whose research at the Ajmera Transplant Centre and as an Assistant Scientist at TGHRI centres around airway stem cell biology and organ bioengineering including engineering of tracheas and lungs.
“The generosity of the Di Poce family will enable me to continue our exciting high reward translational research which combines tissue engineering approaches and stem cells to create bioartificial lungs and tracheas for eventual transplantation.”
The awards were made possible thanks to a generous philanthropic gift from Mr. John Di Poce and his family, who are longstanding supporters of the Ajmera Transplant Centre through their donations to UHN Foundation.
“About a year ago I had the opportunity to participate in a forum on gender equity and the challenges faced by women in Transplantation,” says Dr. Humar about the impetus for the awards. “It was a great learning opportunity for me, and it became clear to me that we need to do more. I approached one of our philanthropic donors, John Di Poce, who shared my enthusiasm and vision for this award.”
Another award winner is Dr. Nazia Selzner, Medical Director of UHN’s Living Donor Liver Transplant[LDLT] Program, and Clinician Investigator at TGHRI. Her research focus is living donor liver transplantation and ex-vivo liver perfusion.
“It will allow me to have more protected time dedicated to my research, where a current focus is defatting human livers, which are currently rejected for liver transplant, so as to increase the number of organs available for transplant.”
Dr. Ana Konvalinka says the Award, which is supported through the John Di Poce Family Fund at UHN Foundation, will help sustain and ignite her research in kidney transplant recipients in three major areas.
“I will work to identify potential therapeutic agents for treatment of antibody-mediated rejection in the kidney,” says the transplant nephrologist at UHN’s Ajmera Transplant Centre and TGHRI Senior Scientist.
“I will also extend the studies in the domain of kidney fibrosis, or scarring, to explore manipulations of fibrosis-associated proteins that my lab had described. If we are able to reduce fibrosis in cells and in pre-clinical models of kidney scarring, we will aim to translate these manipulations to patients with kidney disease.”
“And third, I will invest in development of methods to study the protein changes in single cells and small compartments within the kidney. Such work will enhance our understanding of molecular mechanisms that underpin kidney injury in rejection, and fibrosis.
“One of my main goals with this award will be to support salaries and stipends of excellent research staff and trainees who help me move our projects forward.”, says the fifth awardee Dr. Tereza Martinu, a lung transplant physician at UHN’s Ajmera Transplant Centre and TGHRI Scientist whose research focus is immune responses and chronic rejection in lung transplant recipients. “Through its recipients, this generous award will thus enable the mentorship of many future investigators.”
“I would like to use this award to translate my laboratory findings to the clinic and bring my biomarker and therapy-focused research to our lung transplant patients. We have exciting data showing that specific biomarkers measured in the lung-derived fluid can predict rejection processes, epithelial injury and scarring in the lung graft. The next step is to develop clinical tests and therapies that target these pathways. The overall aim of my scientific program is to ultimately improve lung transplant outcomes through better diagnostics and therapeutics for chronic rejection.”