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Transplanted from Pioneer to Award Winner

Find out how a researcher's lifetime of groundbreaking work in organ transplantation led to the prestigious Prix Galien Research Award.


When organ transplant pioneer Philip Halloran started medical school over 30 years ago, over half of patients who received a transplant died. Over the past three decades, Halloran dedicated himself to improving these odds, constantly anticipating and addressing the next challenge ahead. This week, he was awarded the 2016 Prix Galien Research Award for being one of the most influential players in cutting the organ rejection rate from 55 percent to just 5 percent.

When a patient receives an organ transplant, the immune system responds to it as a foreign object and attacks it. Transplant recipients are given toxic immunosuppression drugs for life to try to counteract this response.

Halloran, founder of the Alberta Transplant Applied Genomics Centre at the University of Alberta, defined modern understanding of organ rejection.

Working against the established understanding at the time, Halloran found the most common mechanism of immune rejection, changing the landscape of the field. A decade ago, a type of immune cells called T cells were recognized as important players in organ rejection. Drugs were able to control the T cell response, but this did not stop organ loss. Halloran defined another mechanism, called antibody-mediated rejection, that was damaging small blood vessels in the newly transplanted organs. This is now recognized as the major mechanism of organ loss, and is paving the way for new drug trials.

Moreover, Halloran developed some of the best histology protocols for staining cell samples to look for rejection at a molecular level, and created a codified system to define rejection. Biopsies are still sent to Edmonton to take advantage of this protocol, as the next best methods for finding causes of rejection are still inaccurate 40 percent of the time. He is looking to license a new platform called the Microscopic Diagnostic system that will improve diagnostics and make biopsy collection safer. This system will make it easier for doctors to find the causes and stages of rejection, allowing them to personalize treatment on a case-by-case basis.

To help patients live longer lives with reduced side effects from immune suppression, Halloran also developed a companion drug called CellCept. CellCept is widely used by transplant patients around the globe, and is estimated to add over one million years of survival for transplant recipients worldwide.

These contributions to the field of organ transplantation have given hope to patients who once faced terrible odds. Congratulations, Dr. Halloran, on this well-deserved honour.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.