Research Australia award for early-career asthma researcher

Dr Christine Keenan

Dr Christine Keenan accepting the 2019 Research Australia

Griffith University Discovery Award.

The discovery of a potential new treatment approach for asthma has seen early-career researcher Dr Christine Keenan win the 2019 Research Australia Griffith University Discovery Award.

The acknowledgement from Australia’s peak research body follows breakthrough preclinical research led by Dr Keenan. The study showed an anti-cancer drug could ‘switch off’ and reverse the uncontrolled inflammation responsible for driving and exacerbating asthma.

Recognising an emerging leader

Dr Keenan, who has been researching asthma for many years, said the findings could dramatically improve the future of asthma treatment.

“Never before have I seen a treatment wipe out signs of an allergic immune response like this before,” she said.

She said there had been an outpouring of public interest in the research.

“It’s been immensely exciting to publish our findings after many years of dedicated research and gratifying to experience the level of interest the study has received. I’m grateful to Research Australia and Griffith University for acknowledging our work,” Dr Keenan said.

Research Australia CEO Nadia Leven said the discovery could provide the first targeted treatment for the root cause of asthma.

“Dr Keenan’s leadership in this area is particularly remarkable for someone so early on in their career.”

Targeting the driver of disease

Asthma is a long-term lung condition that currently has no cure. One in nine people in Australia have asthma and Melbourne has one of the highest incidences of the disease in the world. Current medicines are falling short as they only serve to ease the symptoms, can have unwanted side-effects or can be very expensive.

The uncontrolled inflammation associated with allergic asthma restricts airways, increases mucus and makes it hard to breathe. The researchers set out to target and arrest the cause of the inflammation which previous research indicated was driven by the enzyme Ezh2. This indicated an Ezh2 inhibitor drug could effectively suppress inflammation in an allergic response.

Through a series of laboratory studies, they showed that the inhibition of Ezh2 could dampen the overreaction by immune T cells that lead to uncontrolled inflammation in the lungs, as well as reverse any established inflammation associated with asthma.

Dr Keenan and her colleagues are now looking to partner with industry and establish clinical trials to test the new approach and potentially bring hope to millions of asthma sufferers around the world.

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