"When you get a transplant, your body sees proteins called 'antigens' on the transplanted organ. If the antigens in your blood don't match the antigens on the organ, it sends white blood cells to attack the organ and reject it. We want to avoid that. That's why what I do is so important as part of this whole transplant process. Human leukocyte antigen testing (HLA) facilitates the selection of the most suitable donor for transplant which reduces the risk of a post-transplant complications. When I started at Penn 40 years ago, I was doing HLA compatibility testing. Now, four decades later, I'm the manager of that lab.
There are 18 of us in the HLA lab, and we support all of Penn's transplant programs: heart, pancreas, lung, kidney and vascularized composite allotransplantation (VCA for short, which includes hand and uterus transplants). We're a 24/7 operation, and we're always on-call. HLA immunological assessments are crucial to ensure recipient-donor compatibility and reduce risk of rejection.
I've stayed in this field because it's always changing, improving. The technology has advanced so much over my career. Our understanding of HLA and antibodies continues to evolve. Things are so much faster thanks to technology, which means we can get our patients to transplant sooner. At the end of the day, the thing that keeps me here is the end result: better outcomes for our patients because we're better at matching organs to recipients.
Our overall role in the grand scheme of things is small, but it's really so important. In the lab, we don't interact with patients like the nurses and doctors do. We get to know our patients through their immune system, their HLA profiles. We follow these patients forever since we're always looking for signs of organ rejection. It's highly satisfying when a critically ill patient receives a transplant and gets that second chance at life – we know we played a part."