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Hat-trick of wins on world stage for RPA Transplantation Unit

Dr Anita Niu’s research could revolutionise the future of liver transplantation. 

Three people standing together holding an award
SydneyConnect image: Dr Mark Ly and Associate Professor Carlo Pulitano with this year's winner of the Rising Star Award, Dr Anita Niu

The highest honour recognising academic research excellence from the International Liver Transplantation Society, the Rising Star Award, was recently awarded to Dr Anita Niu from RPA’s Translational Centre for Organ Assessment, Repair, and Optimisation (COARO). This was the third year in a row that COARO researchers have won the prestigious award, something never previously achieved by any organisation. 

Under the mentorship of Associate Professor Carlo Pulitano, Anita was recognised for her groundbreaking research into whether donated human liver grafts can grow and regenerate outside the body using prolonged normothermic machine perfusion technology. Anita explained that this technology tries to mimic what the body would normally provide to keep an organ alive outside the body, maintaining a regular body temperature. 

“Essentially we’re trying to replace whatever the other organs in the body would normally be supplementing the liver,” explained Anita.

“So, [instead of] the heart we’re providing a pump to pump blood around, we’ve got an oxygenator that mimics a lung to provide oxygen to the organ, we’ve got a dialysis that mimics what a kidney would do to filter the blood and clean out all the toxins, and we also give it [the organ] a lot of infusions and nutrients that you would normally be getting from either your diet or other things your body produces like hormones.” 

The innovative approach was developed by the team at COARO, the only group in the world to keep human livers alive outside the body for up to three weeks. 

Using this approach, the research offers new insights into the mechanisms governing liver regeneration and assists with the development of therapeutics that can promote the repair and regeneration of human liver grafts. This opens future potential to "grow" a liver in the lab, which would revolutionise the field of liver transplantation, exponentially increasing the number of donor liver grafts available for patients waiting for a liver transplant.  

Anita and Carlo travelled to the Rising Star symposium in Houston, Texas USA to accept the award in person. Previous winners were Dr Mark Ly in 2023 and Dr Soon Lau in 2022, with the whole team at COARO contributing to their success.  

Anita went on to express her gratitude for the diverse COARO team which includes people from engineering, science and medical backgrounds. 

“Everyone there is very hard working and has a very strong work ethic and that definitely helps bring together the experiments that we’re doing.  

“It's very complicated; quite time-consuming as well. Everyone’s played their part and been very supportive, putting a lot of their own time into this project. It’s been quite a big effort from everyone.” 

While Anita was surprised to receive the award, she said it was very encouraging. 

“It’s good to see that everyone was so interested in the topic when we presented, and it’s definitely an area we should do more research into. It would have a pretty big impact on clinical outcomes," she said.

“There’s a very long waiting list for organ transplantation and being able to generate multiple grafts from one graft would significantly reduce that waiting period and mortality rates.”