For Stephen Persaud, MD, PhD, Washington University in St. Louis is home.
The young investigator has been at the university for 14 years, doing his PhD dissertation and medical training there. Since beginning his graduate studies in the famed Immunobiology division of the Department of Pathology and Immunology, he’s been focused on understanding T cell receptor signaling and self vs. non-self recognition—research that could give us a window into the immune consequences of transplantation.
And now, he’s at a turning point in his career. Recently, he moved from postdoc to junior faculty. For Persaud, it’s an exciting new step, but it’s also one that comes with certain requirements of independence—specifically funding.
“To make the next step, to get that promotion, I had to show that I was a viable researcher and find funding for my own efforts,” he said. “To be able to utilize a mechanism like the New Investigator Award can help in that regard—it’s an incredible boon for a junior faculty member.”
Persaud was one of the recipients of ASTCT’s 2020 New Investigator Award. 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.
His research proposal focused on developing novel approaches to allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (alloHSCT) that reduce treatment-related adverse effects. Specifically, his work in John DiPersio’s lab showed antibody-drug conjugates targeting CD45, when combined with the Janus kinase inhibitor baricitinib, permitted stable, high-level donor engraftment in murine alloHSCT models.
His research aims to use targeted immunotherapies as the basis for novel alloHSCT conditioning strategies that do not require chemotherapy or radiation.
“In general, distinguishing self from nonself is an enormous feat our immune system is able to accomplish, and it’s something I’ve been interested in for a number of years,” he said. “There’s potential practical applicability to a variety of immunologic diseases, and very relevant to understanding the immune responses occurring during alloHSCT.”
If his research proves successful, Persaud said this could open the door for chemotherapy- and radiation-free alloHSCT, which opens the doors for more patients to receive the treatment, specifically older patients, those with significant comorbidities, and young patients with non-malignant hematologic disorders.
For Persaud, it’s finding opportunities to treat some of the most vulnerable patients that keeps pushing him forward in his career.
“You see the numbers of people who have been helped by better understanding the basic biology of disease - that’s what gets me going,” he said. “That’s very important for ultimately improving patient care.”
By receiving the New Investigator Award, it allows Persaud to continue his research, which is critical at this point in his career. He said acquiring funding and completing projects are key to convincingly demonstrate one’s viability as an independent investigator. Knowing what this research could do for patients in transplant, Persaud said it pushes him to apply for all types of funding.
Moreover, having the title of an ASTCT New Investigator is a badge of honor. Looking at previous winners, Persaud said he’s proud to be among a cohort of investigators who’ve been able to produce research that is advancing the fields of transplantation and cellular therapy.
“They’re proposing projects of great relevance to the field,” he said of past and current New Investigators. “This is clearly a very dedicated, accomplished group of investigators.”
He said he is grateful for the support of ASTCT and all his mentors at Washington University of St. Louis who have helped him develop his research throughout the years. For those looking to pay it forward, he said there’s no better way than to support the work of New Investigators.
“I hope the things we’re able to do in the lab advance how we look at and, eventually, perform hematopoietic transplantation,” he said. “This is why I do what I do—I want these things to move forward and, eventually, help people. I am grateful for the support of ASTCT, which allows me to contribute to that effort.”
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