Emerging Leaders Prize recognises future leaders in hepatitis research
Three outstanding hepatitis researchers have been announced today as winners of the Medical Research Foundation’s seventh Emerging Leaders Prize.
The 2023 prize awards a total of £200,000 to researchers from Glasgow Caledonian University, the University of Oxford, and the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research.
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. There are five main strains of the hepatitis virus, referred to as types A, B, C, D and E. In particular, types B and C (HBV and HCV) are the most common cause of liver cirrhosis, liver cancer and viral hepatitis-related deaths.
354 million people
live with HBV or HCV worldwide
While existing treatments can lead to a cure, the prospect of life-long antiviral therapy can lead to a number of complex challenges.
We need better options for diagnosing and treating hepatitis, to help prevent the 1.4 million deaths that occur each year worldwide.
Hepatitis is one of our longest-standing research priorities. In the last decade, we have supported HCV Research UK – one of the largest hepatitis C research cohorts in the world – as well as six research fellowships, for scientists tackling both viral and autoimmune hepatitis.
The Emerging Leaders Prize awards are designed to support research leaders of the future with flexible funding that can be used to enhance career development as well as their research.
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First place, £100,000: Dr Hamish Innes, Senior Research Fellow, Glasgow Caledonian University
With expertise in epidemiology, statistics, genetics and analysis of linked health data, Dr Hamish Innes has led vital research into HCV antiviral therapy.
Funded by a Foundation Fellowship, and through large population cohort data which included patients from HCV Research UK, Innes has shown that antiviral therapy reduces risk of death and severe liver disease for HCV patients.
This data has influenced policymakers, instigating scale-up programmes for antiviral treatment, to work towards HCV elimination.
Despite improvements to treatment, people with HCV cirrhosis remain at high risk of dying from liver cancer after their HCV infection is cured. Most of these liver cancer deaths could be averted by detecting the liver cancer early when it is smaller, and therefore much easier to treat.
Dr Hamish Innes’ research is now exploring how clinical prediction models, like risk calculators, could improve early detection of liver cancer in patients with HCV.
Risk calculators are used widely by health professionals to generate a 'score' which estimates the likelihood of individuals developing certain diseases. These scores aid decision making in clinical practice and guide the type of treatments that health care professionals prescribe.
Dr Innes will use the Emerging Leaders Prize funding to access new datasets, allowing him to strengthen the evidence base for liver cancer surveillance in HCV patients and continue research into the genetic predictors of liver cancer.
Second place, £70,000: Dr Azim Ansari, Group Leader, University of Oxford
Genetic variations among individuals can influence how they respond to infections, including HCV and HBV.
Viruses, like HCV and HBV, also have their own genetic material, typically in the form of RNA or DNA. The genetic makeup of viruses can affect how they interact with the host's cells, and the severity of the infection.
As a statistical geneticist, Dr Azim Ansari is interested in understanding how the combination of variations in both the patient's genetic code and the virus's genetic code contributes to the different outcomes observed in individuals with HCV and HBV infections.
In order for viruses to reproduce, they rely on the machinery inside their host's cells. Making new virus particles involves interactions between viral and host proteins.
Dr Ansari is conducting association tests to link the genetic differences of both the host and the virus. This could help reveal how their genes interact, pointing out areas where their genetic codes may clash; known as ‘genomic conflict’.
Dr Ansari’s research results may help to create better vaccines, find new targets for drugs, and develop innovative treatments to fight infections more effectively.
With the Emerging Leaders Prize funding, Dr Ansari plans to attend a leadership course and to extend his research. He will investigate transcriptomics of 200 liver biopsies from individuals with HCV infection. Ultimately, he hopes to contribute to advancements in preventing, diagnosing, and treating liver diseases.
Highly commended, £30,000: Dr Joe Grove, Sir Henry Dale Fellow, MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research
Virus particles spread infection from one cell to another with ‘entry proteins’ which they use to break into cells.
It is currently unknown how the entry proteins of HCV and HBV allow them to access liver cells. This gap in knowledge is detrimental to the development of vaccines and new anti-viral drugs.
Dr Joe Grove has been investigating the entry proteins of HCV for over 15 years. He and his team combine laboratory experiments with computational simulation to understand the nuts and bolts of how these proteins work.
Most recently, using state-of-the-art artificial intelligence (AI), Dr Grove’s team have predicted the structure of the HCV entry proteins. This work suggests that HCV has a previously unknown type of entry mechanism, and this discovery will guide laboratory work for years to come.
This Emerging Leader’s Prize will fund powerful computing hardware to accelerate Dr Grove’s AI-guided research and allow him to extend his studies to entry proteins in HBV.
This will generate new knowledge that will act as a foundation for future development of vaccines and drugs against viral hepatitis.
We want to continue making a difference to the study of hepatitis by supporting the research leaders of the futureDr Angela Hind
Dr Angela Hind, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Foundation, said:
“We want to continue making a difference to the study of hepatitis by supporting the research leaders of the future, and our 2023 Emerging Leaders Prize-winners are all making a significant impact in this field.
By investigating the fundamental causes of hepatitis and the way we treat it, their research could lead to much-needed new approaches to diagnosis and treatment. In turn, these advances could significantly improve the lives of patients living with hepatitis and hepatitis-related illness.”
The prize-winners received their awards at a ceremony in London on Wednesday 22 November 2023.
This year’s prize was generously supported by a gift in Will from the Professor Victor Louis Menage and Johanna Alicia Menage, as well as a grant from HCV Research UK, which is led by Professor John McLauchlan and Professor Will Irving. Dr Hamish Innes’ prize was also supported by a gift in Will from Effie Miller Munro and Jenny Porley.
This is the seventh year of our Emerging Leaders Prize. In previous years, we have recognised researchers working in lupus, adolescent mental health, antimicrobial resistance, pain, and COVID-19. In 2024, the Prize will be open to researchers working on the Impact of Climate Change on Health
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