Nisannne Ghonem, assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island’s College of Pharmacy, is a recipient of the 2017 Mentored Research Awards from Advance-CTR, a federally funded statewide effort to support clinical research that can be translated into approaches and policies to improve the health of Rhode Islanders.
She is one of three researchers across the state to receive a two-year grant through the awards program, which aims to recruit and train early career health scientists representing diversity in background and discipline. Her research seeks to address a universal problem in kidney transplant surgery that can result in failure of the organ graft. The Advance-CTR (Clinical Translational Research) award covers 75 percent of the researcher’s salary, with additional funds for supplemental tuition or research needs as well as mentoring.
“We are tremendously proud of our Mentored Research Awardees, who were selected from an extremely competitive batch of applications. Professor Ghonem shows highly promising research in the area of pharmacology and toxicology, and we look forward to supporting her career development through this award,” said Dr. Ira Wilson, director of the Professional Development Core of Advance-CTR based at Brown University, which runs the Mentored Research Awards program.
Ghonem’s research will explore the use of a class of drugs known as prostacyclins to reduce ischemia-reperfusion injury to a transplanted kidney from a deceased patient that can result in failure of the organ graft. These injuries occur when blood flow to the donor organ is unavoidably interrupted (ischemia) and then resumes (reperfusion) upon transplantation. “This injury is inherent in the nature of the transplant surgery, and the problem remains unsolved,” Ghonem said.
Prostacyclins, which act as anti-coagulants and vasodilators to improve blood flow, have shown promise in liver transplantation research, she said. Solving the ischemia-reperfusion problem could mean the difference between life and death for the 2 million people worldwide — and 650,000 in the United States — living with end-stage kidney disease and who are in need of organ transplants.
“There is a great disparity in the number of patients waiting for transplants and organs available,” Ghonem said. “The discovery of a drug to treat this injury would allow acceptance of more kidney grafts, which could dramatically increase the number of organs available for transplant and improve patient outcomes and survival.”
Ghonem’s mentor on the project is Fatemeh Akhlaghi, a URI pharmacy professor and the Ernest Mario Distinguished Chair in Pharmaceutics. The team also comprises two co-investigators and mentors: Dr. Reginald Gohh, associate professor at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School and surgeon and medical director of organ transplantation at Rhode Island Hospital; and Dr. Rujun Gong, associate professor and director of kidney research at the medical school.
The researchers will assess the effects of prostacyclin on ischemia-reperfusion in laboratory rats. Such research is the foundation for supporting clinical trials involving adult patients undergoing kidney transplantation, Ghonem’s ultimate aim.
Her research targets sub-optimal and extended criteria organ donors, which come from the deceased donor pool that makes up the majority of transplants. So far this year, Rhode Island Hospital — the only facility in the state that performs organ transplants — has conducted 35 kidney transplants, and only seven came from live donors, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. Circumstances of death, storage/transportation time and other factors affecting how long the kidney is deprived of blood flow increase the chance and extent of injury, and ultimately, the outcome for the patient, Ghonem said.
Advance-CTR (Award #U54GM115677) is a statewide program funded by the National Institute of General Medical Science/National Institutes of Health to support clinical and translational researchers in Rhode Island through funding, research resources and services, and professional development. It seeks to support research across the translational science spectrum, including basic science, clinical and public health.