New Investigator Award Winner Says Research Wouldn’t Be Possible Without Organizations like ASTCT

Jim Boonyaratanakornkit, MD, PhD, has always been interested in how viruses work.

Since he first entered medical school a decade ago, he wanted to understand how viruses affected people, specifically vulnerable populations. When he started his training with Michael Boeckh, MD, PhD, at Fred Hutch, he knew he wanted to focus his research on those undergoing transplant.

“Michael Boeckh was a leader in infectious diseases,” he said. “I talked to him about my own interests and we thought it would be a good opportunity to synergize his expertise in transplant and mine in respiratory viruses. It’s been a great partnership.”

So when Boonyaratanakornkit wanted to start looking at how respiratory viruses—specifically respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), parainfluenza (HPIV), and the human metapneumovirus (HMPV)—impacted patients in transplant, it was Boeckh who told him to look at ASTCT’s New Investigator Award.

“I’m grateful for him directing me to this,” Boonyaratanakornkit said. “There is such a big need, and there are people like myself who are really passionate and chomping at the bit to put in the hours, to put in the effort to advance the field.”

ASTCT’s New Investigator Award is designed to encourage clinical or laboratory research by young investigators in the field of blood and marrow transplantation. The award, which cannot exceed more than $50,000 per year, is used for direct payment of research costs or salary. Investigators submit proposals based on their current research, and each year a select few are chosen.

Boonyaratanakornkit was selected as a winner in 2020 for his proposal on respiratory viruses. He wanted to understand which of his transplant patients were at the greatest risk for these infections, and to define a time period in which they were at their greatest risk of contracting them post-transplant.

While researchers already know transplant patients have an extremely compromised immune system, what they don’t know is the window of vulnerability. Using data from a cohort started by Boeckh in 2005 where a large group of patients at Fred Hutch received weekly nasal swabs for an entire year post-transplant, Boonyaratanakornkit is able to analyze how antibodies to these types of viruses change over time.

“We’re able to look at the cells that actually produce the antibodies and see how long it takes for them to come back and reconstitute after transplant,” he said. “We’re trying to answer the question, ‘How long does it take for B cells to repopulate and produce the antibodies that help fight these infections?’ I think hopefully we’re going to be able to actually translate some of these findings to bedside in the near future. That’s my hope, that’s my goal—to develop some of these antibodies so that someday they could be given to patients to bridge the gap in that window of vulnerability.”

He said this research is especially relevant in the time of COVID-19—another respiratory virus. He said while these viruses are different, the proposal can easily be translated into a study about COVID-19, opening the door for future research on how the pandemic has directly impacted vulnerable transplant populations.

“There’s so much opportunity and avenues to continue this exploration in order to achieve better outcomes for patients,” he said.

Boonyaratanakornkit said he’s grateful to ASTCT for offering this type of research award, as for many young investigators, funding can be hard to come by. For young, passionate investigators looking to make their mark, every dollar counts.

“We are young, but we are the next generation of physicians and scientists who will hopefully one day lead the field,” he said. “That funding is so important for our careers to be sustained. The field is hypercompetitive, but people like myself, are very passionate. Support from societies like ASTCT are so important and it is one that I will cherish throughout my career as one of the first awards I’ve ever received. It’s incredibly valuable.”

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