Solving human health problems is not straightforward, so accessing initial funding to investigate promising research paths is absolutely key, as Dr Sarah Young from the Pathology Department in the Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago, knows.

“Getting the data helps us to get traction to attract bigger grants – we simply wouldn’t be able to have major research without assistance from the Otago Medical Research Foundation for those initial investigations,” she said.

Professor Young studies immune therapies and how to manipulate immune responses to treat disease – suppressing or activating immune responses is fundamental to health, and to controlling diseases like cancer and autoimmune disease.

A proportion of patients with some autoimmune diseases have bowel sensitivities, and recent OMRF-funded research investigated the role of gut bacterial in the immune system.

Professor Young and her team have trialled several different bacteria on cells from patients with autoimmune disease.  This has produced some valuable information on the effect these bacteria have on the immune system, opening the door for further research that can narrow down the mechanisms controlling this response in patients.

In a study funded through OMRF by the Otago Community Trust the researchers have also been looking at how to control inflammation in stroke victims, which can do even more damage to cells deprived of oxygen and nutrition.

As well as having some of her research funded by the OMRF, Professor Young benefited from a summer studentship when she was studying, to undertake immunology research at Otago. This experience started her passion for immunology.

She then went on to complete a PhD in vaccines for infectious disease before working for Cancer Research UK using those same vaccines to treat cancer. She was awarded a Sir Charles Hercus Fellowship from HRC NZ , and in 2014 was awarded a Fulbright Senior Scholar Award to study in the United States.

She says Dunedin is a great place to live and bring up a family; friendly people, great facilities, good climate, and the access to Central Otago. It is also a great community to undertake research – there is a strong collaborative and interdisciplinary relationship between Dunedin Hospital and the University in a very central location, underpinned by a supportive population willing to take part in trials.  “It makes for a fantastic work environment.”