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Medical student’s summer of research

Friday 12 March 2021 9:07am

Fergus Allan image
Fergus Allan at work in the laboratory.

Fergus Allan was going to be an accountant when he left Palmerston North Boys’ High. A gap year provided time to pause and think about what really spins his wheels and he settled on medicine.

“My Bachelor of Science majoring in Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Otago was a great foundation and stepping stone into medicine,” Fergus said.

About to start his third year of medical training, Fergus has spent this summer delving into medical research with the Christchurch Heart Institute (CHI), working alongside Dr Janice Chew-Harris, assessing the biomarker, suPAR, as a potential prognostic tool in cardiovascular disease.

“There are good biomarkers for the diagnosis of heart disease but a lot are limited in prognostic assessment, which means predicting the potential outlook. Measurement of suPAR offers the potential for an effective prognostic blood test by providing additional information to current clinical tests. Levels of suPAR are raised when inflammatory processes occur in the body and when levels are not well balanced, may trigger further inflammation that increases burden to the heart. Therefore, if it is significantly raised due to heart disease, it could be a good indicator of an unfavourable prognosis,” Fergus said.

For his summer project, Fergus is trying to detect forms of suPAR (which exists in the blood as full length suPAR, or in two specific smaller fragments) to see if any individual form is raised in patients with cardiovascular disease. There is some evidence that suPAR forms may drive or may affect disease progression, but currently little is known about this area in the context of heart disease. Fergus has undertaken a lot of experimental and hands-on bench-work, and substantial progress has been made, which will further assist Dr Chew-Harris in her wider project.

The summer studentship experience has provided Fergus with a greater understanding of medical research and it is likely going to be included as part of his career path as a medical doctor. “I now have so much appreciation for the lab. The lab is the key starting point in the research story, with a chance to obtain significant discoveries. However, so much work has to be undertaken first and it can take years before a research finding leads to clinical utility. Nevertheless, each finding, no matter how big or small, adds to knowledge and ultimately can help every day medical decisions including patient care. Biomarkers are so important in providing the bigger picture when assessing patients because knowing the condition of a patient can have a profound impact on their overall outcomes”.

Outside this summer studentship and the busy life of a medical student, Fergus has a keen interest in powerlifting.

“I focus on bench press, squat and deadlift. The gym at Unipol in Dunedin is top quality and easy to get to. University of Otago is a great place to be a student. There are good support networks and facilities, set in a beautiful environment. The summer studentship program is very worthwhile, it offers opportunities to gain new knowledge, new skills and insights into potential career avenues.”

Fergus thanks Dr Janice Chew-Harris and the Christchurch Heart Institute’s Translational Biodiscovery Lab for their support, teaching and mentoring during his summer studentship. He is also extremely grateful to the Heart Foundation for sponsoring this summer studentship.