Gene Lamanilao, a third-year medical student at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, received the highly esteemed 2021 AΩA Alpha Omega Alpha Carolyn L. Kuckein Student Research Fellowship for his research of liver regeneration through mitotherapy. Dr. Aman Bajwa, PhD, an associate professor of Surgery at UTHSC, will mentor his research, as they work with a team for up to two years to perform this novel and crucial research.
Lamanilao, originally from the Philippines, has been a Memphian since the age of three. He completed his undergraduate studies at Rhodes College, where he acquired his interest in research. Lamanilao is active on campus, where he is an officer or member of multiple committees, including UTHSC Unite, the university’s LGBTQIA+ student organization that works to improve diversity and inclusion.
The AΩA fellowship is awarded by the Honor Medical Society, an organization with 132 chapters throughout the country. Its mission is to prepare the health care leaders of the future. The $5,000 award will support Lamanilao’s lab research to evaluate the use of mitotherapy in a preclinical model of liver regeneration. Their current data suggests that the livers of mice treated with mitochondria progress more quickly in their cell cycles than mice that did not receive the mitochondria treatments. Therapies that increase regenerative capacity could be used clinically in patients that may have lost part of their liver due to cancer or in cases of living-donor liver transplant.
“Precision or individualized medicine that uses targeted therapy specific to an individual or disease has significantly improved in the last decade; however, application of these precision therapies for regenerative medicine is lagging,” said Dr. Bajwa. “Mitochondria is a unique resource that we all have, so its use as a therapeutic modality to treat or prevent disease is groundbreaking. Gene’s fellowship project is focused on a preclinical model of liver regeneration, but the application of mitochondria transplant as a therapy and/or treatment of disease and thus its application is universal.”
Dr. Bajwa said she is honored to mentor Lamanilao, especially given that it is not common for a student studying under a basic scientist to receive this fellowship. It was the joint effort between basic and clinical mentors that made it possible for him to receive the fellowship, as well as his previous research training in the Bajwa lab during his Medical Student Research Fellowship (MSRF) program last year. This uniquely positions Lamanilao to study a novel medical therapy.
“We are very proud to have Gene working in the Transplant Research Institute,” said James D. Eason, MD, professor of surgery, chief of transplantation, Endowed Chair of Excellence in Transplant Surgery at UTHSC, and a transplant surgeon and program director of the James D. Eason Transplant Institute. “His work with Dr. Bajwa on mitochondrial therapy will complement our work in ischemia-reperfusion injury and other possible treatment options in improving transplant surgery.”
Lamanilao explained that it will take careful coordination and communication over the next one to two years to complete this research project. They will work with a team of technicians, and Dr. Bajwa will act as a mentor and a filter. Her teaching interests, which include transplant immunology, and her NIH-funded research interests, which include acute kidney injury and mitotherapy, will provide strong support throughout the research project.
“Entering medical school, I really suffered from Imposter Syndrome,” Lamanilao said. “However, you eventually learn to become resilient and navigate the environment of medical school, and winning the fellowship certainly helps abolish that Imposter Syndrome. It really does help me realign myself and know that I do deserve to be here. It also assures me that I’m doing what I need to do to be on my path towards what I envision myself to be as a future doctor, as a future physician scientist.”