Two UCSF Researchers Win Pew Awards for Biomedical Science

Surgeon who studies how cells recognize foreign pathogens is the first Pew Scholar in the program’s 40-year history.

By Victoria Colliver

Two UC San Francisco scientists have received Pew awards in the biomedical sciences for their work in immunology as part of a program that supports promising early-career investigators.

James Gardner, MD, PhD, is a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences and Rebeca de Paiva Fróes Rocha, PhD, is a Pew Latin American Fellow in the Biomedical Sciences.

Headshot of James Gardner.
James Gardner, MD, PhD
Photo by Marco Sanchez
Head shot of Rebeca de Paiva Fróes Rocha
Rebeca de Paiva Fróes Rocha, PhD
Photo by Danilo D’Ornellas

Gardner, a transplant surgeon, assistant professor of surgery and investigator in the UCSF Diabetes Center, is the first surgeon to be named a Pew Biomedical Scholar in the program’s nearly 40-year history.

His research focuses on how the body teaches itself to distinguish between its own tissues and foreign pathogens, so it knows what not to attack.

Gardner discovered a class of cells called extrathymic Aire-expressing cells, or eTACs, that may act as immune educators. These cells play a critical role in immune regulation for conditions ranging from healthy pregnancy and maternal-fetal tolerance to the prevention and treatment of autoimmune diseases like Type I diabetes. Gardner hopes learning how to manipulate and modify these immune educator cell populations will lead to more precise treatments for a broad range of human diseases.

“As a surgeon-scientist I believe I’m in a unique position to help promote collaboration and crosstalk between basic and translational research,” he said. “And I’m incredibly fortunate to be a part of a division and department here at UCSF that supports this kind of fundamental research. UCSF is a place that truly fosters collaboration and innovation, and none of this would be possible without that environment.”

“Wholehearted support to pursue a passion”

Rocha, a postdoctoral fellow in UCSF’s departments of dermatology and surgery, is among 10 fellows from across Latin America to receive funding for two years of training in the U.S.

She received her doctorate in genetics and molecular biology in 2022 from the State University of Campinas in São Paulo, Brazil and will explore the role that immune cells play in promoting the development of pediatric liver cancer. She is continuing her postdoctoral training with Michael Rosenblum, MD, PhD, and Amar Nijagal, MD, at UCSF.

Preliminary studies at UCSF have shown that the immune cells that infiltrate pediatric liver tumors produce cancer-promoting molecules and are deficient in a specific cell receptor, a protein that healthy immune cells use to recognize and clear bacteria as well as eliminate damaged or dying cells. Rocha plans to study that receptor to determine whether restoring it would prevent tumor formation, work that could provide a novel target for preventing or treating pediatric liver cancer.

“Through this fellowship, I hope to set the stage for a career driving innovation in Brazil and beyond, as well as to inspire younger scientists in my country,” Rocha said. “It is seldom in life that one receives such wholehearted support to pursue a passion. The Pew Latin American Fellows Program has filled me with a profound sense of determination and responsibility.”

The 2023 scholars join a community of more than 1,000 biomedical scientists who have received awards from Pew since 1985.

Read more about the 2023 Pew Biomedical Scholars on the Pew Charitable Trust’s website.