Dr. Jarrod Dudakov studies the thymus, a small organ in the chest, just behind the sternum, that is critical to strong immune function. The thymus acts as a training ground for T cells, specialized immune cells that help our bodies fight off viruses and keep tumors in check.
Despite its central importance to our health, the thymus is delicate. It begins to slowly wither once we hit puberty and continues to decline as we age. Stressors such as infection and chemotherapy also trigger a sudden thymic shriveling. The technical term for this is involution.
“You basically breathe on a thymus wrong and it will involute itself,” said Dudakov. “But it also has this remarkable capacity to regenerate.”
Dudakov studies what underlies this amazing regenerative capacity and how it could be harnessed to improve human health. Strategies that enhance the function of the thymus, and thus immune function, could be used to improve responses to vaccines, jumpstart immune systems dampened by chemotherapy and, perhaps, improve the efficacy of immunotherapy.
Though Dudakov’s research could have direct implications for human health, his path to clinically focused research wasn’t straight. Despite an early interest in medicine, he entered Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, without a clear plan. In Australia students choose their area of study — such as law or medicine — in high school. Dudakov had eschewed biology and chemistry classes for courses concentrating on mathematics, physics and the humanities.
At university, “I was very indecisive,” he said, so he chose the broadest possible major: a dual degree in arts and sciences.
“At the time I was very focused on the arts side, I was interested in politics. I was a bit of a film-maker,” he recalled. But this changed during a gap year midway through university, when Dudakov traveled the world with a friend who was studying science. Over the course of a peripatetic year, conversations between the two friends prompted each to rethink his future. Dudakov returned to school determined to study biomedical science, and his friend chose to pursue art.
“We did this complete cross, really,” Dudakov said.
Though he needed to take rudimentary biology and chemistry classes to pursue this new path, he wasn’t deterred: “I found out I loved it.”
Once he began researching the immune system, Dudakov discovered that he liked digging into biological mechanisms within the larger goal of translating the findings into patient care improvements — and the thrill that comes when a hypothesis pans out. Now he studies the molecular details of the thymus’ ability to regenerate after damage.
“Ultimately the goal is to say, ‘If we understand how it naturally regenerates itself, can we take those processes and exploit them in one way or another to generate novel and innovative therapies to boost thymic function?’”