Dr. Heather Francis

Heather Francis, PhD is a Professor of Medicine at Indiana University and a Research Biologist at RLR VA Medical Center. The goal of her laboratory is to investigate the synergistic role that cholangiocytes and mast cells play during cholestatic liver injury, cholangiocarcinoma and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). The lab is currently funded by both the NIH and the VA and these studies examine the link between cholangiocytes, mast cells and hepatic stellate cells during liver disease focusing primarily on primary sclerosing cholangitis and NAFLD. In addition, they recently found that using OTC drugs that block histamine receptors (H1HR and H2HR inhibitors) decreases both primary sclerosing cholangitis and cholangiocarcinoma (CCA) injury. The lab is particularly interested in the HDC/histamine/HR axis and the autocrine (from cholangiocytes) and paracrine (mast cells) role this axis plays in primary sclerosing cholangitis, CCA and NAFLD. Using genetic knockout mice, they have demonstrated that loss of HDC and/or loss of mast cell activation ameliorates liver damage including biliary hyperplasia and hepatic fibrosis along with decreasing NAFLD phenotypes. Mast cells also play a role in CCA tumorigenesis, angiogenesis and epithelial mesenchymal transition (EMT). They have found that inhibition of mast cell-derived histamine using cromolyn sodium decreases these features of CCA progression. Their work has potential therapeutic benefit as most of the drugs they are studying are over the counter drugs and are safe for patient use (cromolyn sodium and antihistamines).

Current Research funding:

  • NIDDK – 2 R01’s
  • VA Merit
  • VA Research Career Scientist
  • Special past funding:
  • PSC Partner’s Seeking a Cure

Awards/honors:

  • Distinguished Alumni of the Year Award, Sul Ross State University, March 2018
  • New Investigator of the Year – APS, 2016
  • American Association for Cancer Research- Warner Fund Scholar-in-Training Award recipient, 2008
  • Chair, NIH HBPP study section, 2020-2022
  • ASIP member, presented a number of talks/posters & participated in Hepatomania

Francis Lab

The Francis lab, led by Heather Francis, PhD, focuses on understanding and identifying target therapies for chronic and often fatal liver diseases. Cholangiopathies are diseases that target cholangiocytes and include diseases like Primary Biliary Cholangitis (PBC), Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC) and Cholangiocarcinoma (CCA).