Sydney doctor inaugurates $4-million Chair to explore a hidden organ

Centenary, Media releases

Revealing the cells that make and police our 80,000 km internal transport network.

Sydney doctor and philanthropist Tom Wenkart will donate $4 million on Monday 26 March, in the presence of the NSW Governor Dr Marie Bashir, to endow the University of Sydney Wenkart Chair in Endothelium Medicine at the Centenary Institute.

The inaugural holder of the Chair is Professor Jennifer Gamble, one of the pioneers of endothelium research.

We each have within us some 80,000 km of pipelines, that carry the ess

ential supplies needed to all parts of our body. The endothelial cells that form this network of blood vessels are essentially a hidden organ weighing about one kilogram. But the workings of this internal transport infrastructure are largely unknown.

The endothelial cells maintain perfect, smooth pipelines year after year but then, when there’s an accident they turn into traffic cops within minutes, allowing white blood cells to pass through the wall of the blood vessels, and giving emergency services access to the scene.

“You prick your finger on a rose thorn – within the hour the wound is inflamed and itching as your body mobilises to fight infection. That’s the endothelium in action,” says Professor Gamble.

These same endothelial cells are implicated when things go wrong in atherosclerosis and auto-immune disease.

And tumours need endothelial cells to form blood vessels – without new blood vessels, tumours won’t grow.

Professor Jennifer Gamble’s work has already transformed our understanding of the role of these endothelial cells. “Fifty years ago we just regarded blood vessels as simple pipes,” she says. “Today we know that they’re much more complex – a living, changing organ that rapidly reacts to threats.”

In 1985, working in Seattle and Adelaide, Jennifer showed that if endothelial cells are stimulated then white blood cells bind to them – the start of inflammation.

Now we know much more about the role of these cells in immunity, heart disease, cancer and other conditions. But Jennifer says it’s still early days in this field of study.

She hopes that, over the next decade or two we’ll be able to understand and control the endothelium in diseases—especially inflammation and those associated with ageing such as atherosclerosis and Alzheimer’s.

Tom Wenkart says that’s what excites him about this field of research. “These endothelial cells play a critical role throughout the body. I believe they’re the key to understanding heart disease, for example. What is it that is happening in my body today that could lead to a heart attack in 20 years?”

“It is time that the importance of the endothelium, as a major organ controlling disease states, was recognised,” says tumour expert Professor David Cheresh, Associate Director of the Institute of Engineering in Medicine at the University of California, San Diego. “Congratulations to Australia for having the foresight and initiative to do this. This is a world first.”

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About Endothelium:

What is it?

  • The endothelium is a thin layer of cells that lines the interior surface of blood vessels, lymphatic vessels and the blood/brain barrier.
  • It controls the passage of materials and the transit of white blood cells into and out of the bloodstream.
    • The immune system: the endothelium manages the immune response at a site of injury and attack
    • Autoimmune disease: this occurs when the endothelium is not correctly policing the immune response
    • Ageing: The endothelium has already been linked to ageing – the older you are, the greater your risk of cardiovascular disease, for instance.
    • Heart Attacks: The endothelium is involved in cardiovascular disease (CVD) in two ways, the formation of new blood vessels (angiogenesis) and changes in the permeability (or ‘leakiness’) of blood vessels.
    • Cancer: without endothelial cells tumours starve.

Why is it important?

About Jennifer Gamble

Jennifer Gamble’s knows the endothelium inside and out. Her initial publication in this area helped establish the endothelium as an organ central to the control of inflammatory processes.

Professor Gamble completed her Masters Degree at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne and her PhD in 1994 at the University of Adelaide.

Since then, she has investigated the fundamental biology of the endothelium and drilled down into how it works: the genetic regulation, molecular events and the signalling pathways.

In 2007, Prof Gamble relocated to the Centenary Institute and has established the Vascular Biology group focusing her research effort on understanding the genetic regulation, including microRNA control, of endothelial cell function and on the impact of senescence (or “ageing”) in disease.  She is currently a Medical Foundation Fellow, Department of Medicine, University of Sydney.

In the University of Sydney Wenkart Chair, Jennifer will be looking at how the endothelium regulates so many key aspects of blood vessel function.

Professor Gamble and her team work on how genetic regulation of specialised blood vessel cells can prevent or exacerbate diseases like cancer and heart disease.

About the Centenary Institute:

The Centenary Institute is an independent leader in medical research seeking improved treatments and cures for cancer, cardiovascular and infectious diseases.

We are working to discover new prevention, early diagnosis and treatment options to enable each generation to live longer, healthier lives than the one before.

Centenary’s affiliation with the RPA Hospital and the University of Sydney means that our discoveries can be quickly applied to the fight against disease in the clinic.  More at:


Photo: Professor Jennifer Gamble, inaugural holder of the University of Sydney Wenkart Chair in Endothelium Medicine at the Centenary Institute. Credit: Centenary Institute

Photo: Professor Jennifer Gamble, inaugural holder of the University of Sydney Wenkart Chair in Endothelium Medicine at the Centenary Institute.

Credit: Centenary Institute