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Sydney doctor inaugurates $4-million Chair to explore a hidden organ

Revealing the cells that make and police our 80,000 km internal transport network.

Sydney doctor and philanthropist Tom Wenkart will donate $4 million today, Monday 26 March, in the presence of the NSW Governor, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO, Chancellor of the University of Sydney, to endow the University of Sydney Wenkart Chair in Endothelium Medicine at the Centenary Institute.

The inaugural holder of the Chair is Professor Jennifer Gamble, one of the pioneers of endothelium research.

We each have within us some 80,000 km 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. But the workings of this internal transport infrastructure are largely unknown.

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

“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.

Professor Jennifer Gamble’s work has already transformed our understanding of the role of these endothelial cells. “Fifty years ago we just regarded blood vessels as simple pipes,” she says. “Today we know that they’re much more complex – a living, changing organ that rapidly reacts to threats.”

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.

She hopes 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 it that is happening in my body today that could lead to a heart attack in 20 years?”

“It is time that the importance of the endothelium, as a major organ controlling disease states, was recognised,” says tumour expert Professor David Cheresh, Associate Director of the Institute of Engineering in Medicine at the University of California, San Diego. “Congratulations to Australia for having the foresight and initiative to do this. This is a world first.”

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Download the full media release and backgrounder here.

Read more on the Centenary blog and see photos from the event at www.centenarynews.org.au

More on the Centenary Institute Colloquium IX: “Biology and Diseases of the Endothelium”

For interviews contact:

▪   Niall Byrne, Science in Public, 0417 131-977,niall@scienceinpublic.com.au or

▪   Suzie Graham on 0418 683-166, s.graham@centenary.org.au

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© 2014 Centenary Institute of Cancer Medicine and Cell Biology.