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Endothelium research receives $4 million of support


27 March 2012

Professor Jennifer Gamble is the inaugural Wenkart Chair in Endothelium Medicine. [Image: Centenary Institute]
Professor Jennifer Gamble is the inaugural Wenkart Chair in Endothelium Medicine. [Image: Centenary Institute]

Sydney doctor and philanthropist Tom Wenkart yesterday donated $4 million to endow the University of Sydney Wenkart Chair in Endothelium Medicine at the Centenary Institute.

The inaugural Chair is Jennifer Gamble, Professor of Vascular Biology and one of the pioneers of endothelium research.

Professor Gamble's work has already transformed our understanding of the role of endothelial cells.

"Fifty years ago we just regarded blood vessels as simple pipes," she said. "Today we know that they're much more complex - a living, changing organ that rapidly reacts to threats.

"You prick your finger on a rose thorn - within the hour the wound is inflamed and itching as your body mobilises to fight infection. That's the endothelium in action," says Professor Gamble.

These same endothelial cells are implicated when things go wrong in atherosclerosis and auto-immune disease. And tumours need endothelial cells to form blood vessels - without new blood vessels, tumours won't grow.

We each have within us some 80,000 kilometres of pipelines, that carry the essential supplies needed to all parts of our body. The endothelial cells that form this network of blood vessels are essentially a hidden organ weighing about one kilogram.

The endothelial cells maintain these perfect, smooth pipelines year after year but then, when there's an accident they turn into traffic police within minutes, allowing white blood cells to pass through the wall of the blood vessels, and giving emergency services access to the scene.

In 1985, working in Seattle and Adelaide, Jennifer showed that if endothelial cells are stimulated then white blood cells bind to them - the start of inflammation.

Now we know much more about the role of these cells in immunity, heart disease, cancer and other conditions. But Jennifer says it's still early days in this field of study.

"I hope that, over the next decade or two we'll be able to understand and control the endothelium in diseases — especially inflammation and those associated with ageing such as atherosclerosis and Alzheimer's."

Tom Wenkart says that's what excites him about this field of research. "These endothelial cells play a critical role throughout the body. I believe they're the key to understanding heart disease, for example. What is happening in my body today that could lead to a heart attack in 20 years?"

The Centenary Institute, University of Sydney is an independent leader in medical research seeking improved treatments and cures for cancer, cardiovascular and infectious diseases.


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