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Helping make personalised medicine a reality  

07 May 2024
Dr Sarah Garnish

Postdoctoral researcher Dr Sarah Garnish’s work focuses on cell death, a process that’s constantly happening in our bodies to keep us healthy, but can make us unwell when it goes wrong.

Dr Garnish’s research leadership was recognised recently when she received the Basic Science Researcher award at the Premier’s Awards for Health and Medical Research.

She shares with us insights into her work, her hopes for where it could lead, and her motivations for becoming a medical researcher.

What does your research look into?

Every minute, millions of cells in our bodies die on purpose. Cell death is an essential process that protects our bodies from disease by removing unwanted, damaged or dangerous cells and by preventing the spread of viruses, bacteria and even cancer.

There are many types of cell death but my research focuses on an explosive form called necroptosis that sounds the alarm for other cells in our bodies to respond.

In most scenarios, such in the case of a viral infection, necroptosis is beneficial. But when necroptosis is uncontrolled or excessive the inflammatory response can trigger diseases, like inflammatory bowel disease.

My research project focused on necroptosis at the molecular level, understanding how it is turned on and off, and how it can drive inflammatory disease.

What have you discovered?

I was able to identify the signals that turn necroptosis on and off, and map the cellular brakes that normally keep necroptosis in check.  

More broadly, my research was able to show that for some of us the brakes that stop necroptosis don’t quite work as they should.  

For most people, necroptosis will stop when the body tells it to stop. But 2–3% of the population carry a gene variant that makes them less responsive to these stop signals.  

We believe this common genetic change, in combination with a person’s lifestyle, infection history and broader genetic makeup may increase their risk of inflammatory disease.  

How could your research help others?

Our new knowledge of how necroptosis occurs at the molecular level is crucial to designing safer drugs with fewer side effects to effectively treat different inflammatory diseases.

While we haven’t tagged this gene variant to one particular disease yet, we see real potential for it to combine with other gene variants and environmental cues to influence the intensity of our inflammatory response.

Our research will pave the way for future research to hopefully pinpoint complementary genetic changes that mean someone is more likely to develop an inflammatory disorder.

Every piece of information like this helps us make personalised medicine more of a reality.

Finally, what did it mean for you to be recognised with a Premier’s Award for Health and Medical Research?

I was blown away by the honour.

It was an amazing acknowledgement of my research and my contributions to the broader scientific community.

This is also a fantastic recognition of the collaborative nature of research, and of my supervisors and mentors who have helped me get here.

My research has always been driven by a desire to understand the unknown. I really hope that one day our discoveries will help the thousands of Australians who live with inflammatory diseases.

Header image: Dr Sarah Garnish

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