First-year medical student gaining research experience in organ preservation

Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society award supports Jessica Perry’s work in Paulo Martins Lab

By Megan Bard

UMass Medical School Communications

August 02, 2018
  Paulo Martins, MD, PhD, and Jessica Perry

Paulo Martins, MD, PhD, and Jessica Perry

Inspired by her mother, a registered nurse, Jessica Perry said she has always wanted to be a doctor. It was during her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in cellular and molecular biology, that she discovered an interest in research.

Now, Perry is a student in the School of Medicine Class of 2021, and, with the support of a Carolyn L. Kuckein Student Research Fellowship from the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society, she is developing her research skills in the lab of Paulo Martins, MD, PhD, assistant professor of surgery and a transplant surgeon at UMass Memorial Health Care.

“I was surprised when Jessica contacted me about working in the lab. It’s not often that a first-year medical student wants to take the summer to work on research,” said Dr. Martins. “I think she understands what inspires and motivates all of us that do transplant. It’s the resilience of the patients and their families to go through tough times while waiting for an organ. Transplant is a transformational process.”

Perry, a native of Sandown, N.H., is researching ways to improve the quality of liver grafts by machine perfusion preservation and gene modulation with RNA interference.

“For me, transplant surgery is amazing. You’re able to change someone’s quality of life overnight by giving them a new organ,” Perry said. “Working in Dr. Martins’ lab this summer has been a tremendous learning experience. Through the mentoring of Dr. Martins and Andrew Gillooly, I have become a more competent and independent researcher.”

The Kuckein Student Research Fellowship award that Perry won is given annually to medical students to support clinical investigation, basic laboratory research, leadership or professionalism training. Only one candidate from each school may be nominated. The award includes a $5,000 stipend.

Martins’ research is focused on innovative ways to improve organ preservation by using liver machine perfusion—a method of continuously perfusing the organ under a more physiologic temperature during the whole preservation time—instead of the standard method of cold preservation in an ice box. In doing so, the Martins lab is testing whether gene silencing using siRNAs (small interference RNAs) during machine perfusion preservation could reduce ischemia reperfusion injury. This approach may also be able to optimize grafts that are initially deemed not transplantable.

“The main motivation of this organ preservation research is to make organs that are not usable, transplantable. To make them last longer to improve the patient’s quality of life,” Martins said.

Perry is using a rodent model to test how to best deliver siRNAs into targeted cells while the liver is being perfused.

“We want to show that siRNAs, after being put into the perfusion solution, will penetrate the liver cells,” Perry said, adding that the testing involves comparing the process at different temperatures, including normothermic room temperature or at the standard cold preservation temperature just above freezing point. “After that we’ll test whether it has been effective at improving the quality of the organ.”

Going into her second year of medical school, Perry said her focus will be on continuing to foster her interests in surgery and research.

“While second year is notoriously time-consuming due to studying for Step 1, I aim to continue working with Dr. Martins on this exciting research as much as I can. I think that if I can hold on to the lessons I learned this summer, it will help me to stay focused and excited about my future,” Perry said.

Related story on UMassMedNow:
Paulo Martins recognized as Rising Star by International Liver Transplant Society
Twenty members of Class of 2018 inducted into Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society