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Jun 2014
Predicting MS in children
Oct 2014
Three new Incubator Grants announced
Dec 2014
2015 Funding announced
Mar 2015
Investigating new treatment options
Oct 2015
Progress in MS Research Conference
Feb 2016
2016 Round of Funding
Feb 2014
New projects being funded
Feb 2014
Breakthrough study shows great promise

Dr Fiona McKay

Piecing Together Puzzle of MS - One Gene at a Time

Growing up, Dr Fiona McKay was fascinated by the human body and watched a lot of surgery documentaries. Now the mother of two is working to find a cure for MS.      

Photo courtesy Benjamin Lee Photography

Dr McKay, a Research Officer at the Centre for Immunology, Westmead Millennium Institute at the University of Sydney, was awarded an Incubator Grant by the Trish MS Research Foundation earlier this year to explore how genes predispose a person to MS – something she has been working on for the past decade. She joins an impressive line-up of researchers who are working to piece together the puzzle of what causes MS in the hope of finding a cure.  

The Incubator Grant is designed as start-up funding to help nurture and explore new ideas in the world of MS research. Dr Fiona McKay’s work is exploring the idea that the genes that predispose someone to MS might do this by making them more susceptible to the Epstein Barr Virus (EBV).  

Dr McKay comments: “EBV is the virus that causes glandular fever, but it has also been associated with MS and we don’t really know why. The jury is still out on whether EBV is really involved in causing MS, or whether it is more active in MS purely as a side-effect of having a chronic inflammatory disease.”  

Dr McKay’s current work is inspired by the work of leaders of the Westmead Millenium Institute at the University of Sydney where she works. Professor Graeme Stewart and Associate Professor David Booth were heavily involved in a huge International MS genetics study, comparing over 10,000 people with MS with 20,000 healthy people. The Trish Foundation made a contribution to the study’s remarkable findings.  

She comments: “I work with a bunch of really talented and committed people at the Westmead Millennium Institute and Westmead Hospital. The leaders of the Westmead team were key players in an international MS genetics study.”    

“As a result of this massive effort, we now know over 110 genes that predispose people to MS.  It’s such a rich source of information, and we’ve only just touched the surface exploring what it can tell us about MS. The next step is to find how these genes predispose to MS, and that’s where the project generously funded by the Trish Foundation comes in.”  

The opportunity to work in MS research started for Dr. Fiona McKay with a post-doctoral position 10 years ago working on how genes predispose a person to MS – and she’s been exploring this idea ever since.   

“I’m passionate about MS research because it changes lives. In the last 10 years, the treatment options have trebled in Australia as a direct result of medical research. The speed of progress gives me hope that we’re getting closer to a cure.”  

Her passion for MS research stems back to her university days studying a Bachelor of Science (biological sciences) and a then a PhD in microbiology at the University of Wollongong. She recalls “learning as an undergraduate at University how the immune system in multiple sclerosis (MS) attacks the conductive sheath surrounding the nerves of the brain and spinal cord, but no one really knew why. I thought it was a fascinating and much-needed research area”.   

Life isn’t all lab coats and test tubes for this scientist at the forefront of MS research. These days Fiona works as a part-time scientist and is also mum of two little boys, aged 3 and 6, who although keep her world chaotic and sleep deprived, she believes her life is richer than she could have ever imagined.  

Reflecting on her role as a mum, she says: “Perhaps the biggest surprise of parenting for me has been the way it leaves you so vulnerable. The love is so intense – you agonise over their everyday anxieties and your heart takes flight with every little screech of delight or ‘I love you’.”  

She continues “I think all parents of small children giggle at the term “balance”; I think you ride the chaos and give thanks for the little wins... like when you arrive somewhere and Batman has not screamed the whole way or undressed himself in the car, or when you string together 6 hours of sleep.”

Fiona and her partner make a dynamic duo, both juggling successful and busy careers with parenthood. “I have a very good-humoured and patient partner who not only works full time but is also great in the kitchen and folds washing” says Fiona.  

“I currently work part-time and am so grateful for a family-friendly and flexible workplace and for understanding mentors. Science is hard work but fascinating, fun and so worthwhile when you’re working on a disease like MS, so I consider myself very lucky to be able to continue while parenting littlies.”  

A note from Dr Fiona McKay about the Trish MS Research Foundation:  

The Trish Foundation that funds my research was established by Roy and Carol Langsford, who watched their daughter Trish struck down in the prime of her life, and ultimately lose her battle with MS in 2002 at the age of 30. I can’t quite imagine how one survives the loss of a child. Yet Roy and Carol have turned this horrible personal tragedy into hope for other people with MS. They and their team of volunteers formed the Trish Multiple Sclerosis Research Foundation with a simple and specific goal – to find a cure for MS.

Trish Foundation & MS Research Australia Working together to find a cure for MS
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