Kui Wai Fong Keynote Speaker: Kazuhiko Yamada, MD, PhD
September 15, 2023
The 2023 Kui and Wai Fong Lectureship was delivered by Dr. Kazuhiko Yamada, MD, PhD from Johns Hopkins University. A pioneer in the world of transplant research, Dr. Yamada came to Baltimore by way of Nippon Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Columbia University. Since August 2022, he has been a professor of surgery and transplantation and the Director of Xenotransplantation at Johns Hopkins University (JHU).
In his lecture, Dr. Yamada enthralled the audience with his work in xenotransplantation, or transplanting organs from animals into humans. While he was told early on that his vision for xenotransplantation was “simply a good dream,” Dr. Yamada pressed on and is turning that good dream into a great reality.
To start, Dr. Yamada described four milestones he hopes to achieve in his first four years at JHU: 1) achieve funding, 2) establish a collaborative network, 3) obtain even more funding, and 4) start human clinical trials in xenotransplantation. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Yamada kept ahead of schedule and achieved his first milestone within just two months at JHU. Currently, Dr. Yamada and his lab have been focused on pre-clinical models of organ transplantation and inducing immune tolerance.
Dr. Yamada brilliantly fit years of complex, innovative science into a fascinating one-hour lecture for the audience. His initial work consisted of identifying targets for immunomodulation prior to xenotransplantation. Next, he developed pre-clinical models of xenotransplantation by transplanting kidneys from pigs into baboons. Now, he is championing research towards “educating” the host immune system by including the thymus with the transplanted kidney as a method of immunomodulation. He described the thymus as a “T cell school” that can induce immune tolerance and thereby prevent the host adaptive immune system from rejecting the transplanted kidney. The implications that tolerance induction would have for the world of transplant surgery are astronomical: not only would xenotransplantation address the organ shortage, but it could also eliminate the need for lifelong immunosuppression and its associated complications. Furthermore, it could even turn transplantation into a semi-elective surgery.
Fascinating science aside, sprinkled within the colorful slides of intraoperative photos and histology specimens were frequent references to one of Dr. Yamada’s main principles: mentorship is key. “Everybody works hard, everybody is smart, but we need additional things.” He paid tribute to his mentors who helped guide him through his career, and beamed as he proudly displayed a photo of the diverse women and men making up his lab. The amount of pride he has in each member of his team was palpable. Dr. Yamada continued, “I believe this organization [SAAS] is very important for Asians and will help a lot.”
Dr. Yamada concluded his lecture with sage advice for aspiring Asian surgeon scientists. Have clarity about your purpose. Know your goals, and know that they may change. Do not become complacent – if you have reached a milestone, move on to the next one. Self-assess frequently and identify new opportunities that you may not have considered previously. Lastly, if you have not met a milestone after a self-granted grace period of two years, either re-challenge yourself or change directions.
Dr. Yamada’s lecture left the audience awed, inspired, and optimistic both for the future of transplant surgery and the budding careers of Asian surgeon scientists.