The University of Newcastle, Australia

Rising respiratory researcher

Friday, 6 March 2015

One of Europe's premier international prizes for emerging respiratory researchers has been awarded to Dr Malcolm Starkey from the University of Newcastle and HMRI's VIVA (Viruses, Infections/Immunity, Vaccines and Asthma) Program.

Malcom Starkey

The Klosterfrau Research Grant 2015, which is being officially presented in Switzerland today, brings a €20,000 ($A28,300) funding injection to Dr Starkey's pulmonary research in children.

While open to researchers aged under 40, Dr Starkey is 30 and received his PhD only a year ago. He also has an early-career fellowship from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

"My research is all about understanding why early-life lung infections predispose a child to chronic disease when they're older," Dr Starkey said. "That includes asthma and emphysema, or greater susceptibility to the flu virus, but there's also links with diseases such as type-1 diabetes, Alzheimer's Disease and arthritis.

"Most infections are acquired when children are out and about in the community. For example, nearly every infant will be infected with Respiratory Syncytial Virus by the time they are two and a proportion will go on to develop either childhood or adult-onset asthma."

Through his laboratory modelling, Dr Starkey is aiming to develop new targeted therapies that not only help a child get better when they're ill but also improve their long-term health prospects.

He was first author of a study published in the high-impact journal Mucosal Immunology focussing on how a biological protein known as TRAIL (Tumor necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand) causes permanent alterations in lung structure and function. He published a further three studies on the topic to demonstrate the mechanisms involved.

"It's preventative and personalised medicine rather than treating patients at the end stage," Dr Starkey adds. "One of the emerging therapies we're developing for asthma involves what we call biologics – these are natural antibodies that bind to a protein (interleukin) in the immune system to alter its function but without the toxicity associated with some chemical compounds."

Dr Starkey is based with Professor Phil Hansbro's team but works collaboratively with Professors Paul Foster, Darryl Knight, Peter Wark and Joerg Mattes across a range of VIVA projects.

He has previously won several travel and education prizes through HMRI and PULSE, allowing him to attend international conferences and complete an exchange visit to the National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College, London.

"These really fed into the fellowship, and the fellowship in turn helped me in the Klosterfrau awards process," he said. "The grant recognises emerging researchers who are standing out in their field, and that's why it was such a great surprise to wake up and find that I'd won.

"There's a bit of luck involved but also a lot of hard work with a great respiratory team here in Newcastle."

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