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06 Aug 2020

Meet the team: Dr Lucy Sullivan improves the survival of transplant recipients

University of Melbourne’s Dr Lucy Sullivan, Senior Research Officer at the Doherty Institute

Can you introduce yourself and your role at the Doherty Institute?

I am a Senior Research Officer in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Doherty Institute, where my research focuses on Transplant Immunology. I also have an Honorary position at The Alfred Hospital with the Lung Transplant Service.

What are you currently working on?

My current research investigates the immune system following transplantation. We have several ongoing projects that focus on reducing rejection and controlling infection following lung transplantation. One project aims to understand the mechanism of immune destruction of the transplanted lung, ultimately for the purpose of identifying targeted diagnostics and therapies to prevent rejection. Another project is focused on the control of infection following transplantation, which can result in transplant loss and death. Our research in this area has identified subsets of immune cells that may have future utility in cell therapy for the treatment of post-transplant infections.

What initially attracted you to the field of science your area of expertise?

My PhD focussed on lung physiology. My initial postdoctoral research, however, was quite different and I investigated the immune response to viruses. My current work links both of these areas but with a directly translational aspect. I really enjoy the fact that my work is focused on answering basic science questions that can have clinical impact.

How does this contribute to Australia and the field of science?

Transplantation transforms the lives of patients with end-stage organ failure, however, long-term survival is limited by chronic rejection, post-transplant infection and cancer. Indeed, the median survival following lung transplantation is less than seven years. Uncovering the mechanisms that drive chronic rejection and control post-transplant complications are urgently required to improve the survival of transplant recipients. Australia is already leading the world in transplant success and our team is uncovering key findings that will further strengthen Australia’s position as world-leaders in this area. Ultimately, our research aims to improve transplant success and transplant recipients’ quality of life.

What do you see as the biggest scientific challenges in your area of work?

The biggest challenge in my area is improving longterm outcomes following transplantation. Transplant immunology involves a delicate balancing act of preventing an overzealous immune response from attacking the transplanted organ, while at the same time maintaining enough immunity to prevent post-transplant infection and malignancy. Transplant recipients often require life-long immunosuppressive medication to counter the immune system’s rejection of the organ but these medications are a double-edged sword; although they reduce rejection, they make transplant patients highly vulnerable to infection and cancer. Additionally, rejection itself can be very difficult to diagnose and often comes too late to save the patient. Our research is working towards a personalised medicine approach which encompasses better donor-recipient matching, cutting edge diagnostics and post-transplant monitoring of immune biomarkers to tailor immunosuppression and antiviral medications.