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Research investigates Tb immunity

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Former Otago University Students' Association president and Otago medical graduate Ayesha Verrall is still making good use of her experience with the association in her new role as an Indonesian-based medical researcher.

Dr Verrall (34) says a key focus for her as president back in 2001 was "student representation on issues like tuition fees and student debt".

"I'm really proud of what my generation of student activists achieved in stopping a decade of fee increases and getting interest wiped off student loans.

"Having that experience in my early 20s gave me confidence to participate and challenge orthodoxy.

"I draw on the skills I learnt as OUSA president every day because everything scientists do involves communication, teamwork, creativity and funding.

"My study will recruit 2000 people and I don't think I've run such a big project since I organised student demonstrations.

"The opportunity to participate in the student organisations is a much better way to gain this type of skill than the rater artificial setting of group assignments," she said.

Her latest research, involving tuberculosis immunity, is being done in collaboration with the University of Padjadjaran at Bandung, Indonesia's third-largest city, and the provincial capital of West Java.

Her studies aim to probe the genetic basis of natural immunity against tuberculosis, a disease which kills about 1.4 million people throughout the world each year.  There were an estimated 8.7 million new cases in 2011.

Tuberculosis also "takes a very heavy toll on the community" at Bandung.

Her research project, for an Otago PhD, is being undertaken through the Otago University Centre for International Health, whose co-directors are her research supervisor Prof Philip Hill, and Prof John Crump. 

In the first year of her PhD studies, she is seeking ethical approval in New Zealand and Indonesia to undertake the research, as well as organising logistical details for fieldwork.

Her research has been backed by a $250,000 clinical research training fellowship from the Health Research Council and a $25,000 grant from Mercy Hospital, Dunedin, the latter to help with fieldwork.

She was "really enjoying" her work and her Indonesian university collaborators were "very accomplished researchers themselves".

"The main goal is to conduct a large study on people exposed to tuberculosis in their home to find out what makes some people immune to Tb.

"Scientists have observed for decades that a proportion of people get exposed to Tb yet never develop infection, but nobody has yet designed a study to find out why.  "We aim to do this through a combination of careful field epidemiology and cutting-edge immunological assays," she said.

Understanding why some people don't get Tb, even after heavy exposure, would be a major advance towards developing a vaccine.

The current BCG vaccine had "very modest efficacy" against Tb, so developing an alternative new vaccine was "desperately needed".

"Bandung is a really special city.

"The food and lush tropical rainforest are highlights.  The crowds, traffic and mosquitoes are challenges."

And she has already had dengue fever once.

Since completing her MBChB medical qualifications in Dunedin in 2004, she has lived in many places, including Wellington, and was a Fellow in infectious diseases at National University Singapore for about 16 months (2001-12).

Last year she also undertook bioethics study in New York.

But, after time away, it has been good to re-establish links with Dunedin and Otago University this year.

"After living in Singapore and New York I've enjoyed reconnecting with old friends and rediscovering a lot of what I used to take for granted: things like the natural environment, the everyday courtesy people show each other and the humility shown even by very talented people".

First published in the Otago Daily Times on 21 October 2013. Republished with permission.