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From Across the Planet, Experts on the Liver and its Diseases Meet in Galveston

More than 165 medical researchers from around the world — including leading immunologists, cell biologists, virologists and transplant surgeons — gathered at the Moody Gardens Hotel in Galveston beginning Friday to discuss recent studies examining how the liver’s unique immune system responds to diseases ranging from hepatitis C and malaria to tuberculosis and organ rejection.

Hepatitis C infects about 180 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and the WHO estimates that malaria causes between 1.5 million and 2.7 million deaths each year.

The conference, the third such international event on this topic to be held in Galveston since 1999, ran from Friday morning until noon Sunday and was called Hepatic Inflammation & Immunity 2008. It drew participants from Australia, China, Germany, Japan, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, as well as from all over the United States.

The body’s immune system responds differently to infectious disease in the liver than it does to infections in other organs such as the heart, brain and muscle, and exploring the difference was one theme of the conference, said one organizer, Dr. Stanley M. Lemon, director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. “Understanding this difference is critical to understanding how to treat liver disease and manage liver transplantation,” Lemon said. A second theme, he said, is understanding the different ways that the liver’s innate and adaptive immune systems respond to infections and tumors — or attack the liver itself in the case of auto-immune diseases and organ rejection.

Lemon called the multidisciplinary conference “a critical step in assessing our present understanding of how the body responds to infectious disease in the liver, not just hepatitis C but also malaria, tuberculosis and many other very serious infections.” He added: “We expect that the information shared at this meeting will help us design better interventions, leading to improved control of these devastating liver diseases and potentially reducing the risk of liver cancer.”

Dr. Luca Cicalese, director of the Texas Transplant Center at UTMB, said that the conference is extremely important for surgeons like himself and other clinicians as well as for basic researchers because research broadening the understanding of the immune system’s biology as it affects the liver is central to improving outcomes in liver transplant surgery—including reducing the need for transplants in the first place and reducing the likelihood of organ rejection when transplants are required.

“More than half the patients who receive liver transplants need them because they previously had been infected with hepatitis C,” he noted. Cicalese also said that immune system dysfunction likely plays a part in development of the liver cancers known as hepatocellular carcinomas, which he said are the fifth most common type of cancer found worldwide.

The conference was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the Department of State, the U.S. Japan Cooperative Medical Sciences Program, as well as by the McLaughlin Endowment at UTMB and the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. It was partially underwritten as well by a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

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