Funding for student and research into rare disease

A Scots charity founded by the parents of a teenager who lost her life to a rare disease is helping fund a student to do research into the condition.

University of Aberdeen PhD student Catriona Walls is being supported by the Lauren Currie Twilight Foundation set up in 2010 in memory of Lauren Currie who was just 15 when she died of vasculitis.

Catriona’s position is also being supported by some of the proceeds of an annual charity coast to coast cycle ride organised by BP which raises money for Scottish good causes.

Vasculitis affects 1 in 5000 people and is the term for a group of diseases, such as Wegener’s Granulomatosis, where the blood vessels become inflamed, often affecting multiple organs.

Its cause is not yet known, it has no preventative medicine and currently the only therapies for vasculitis are drugs that suppress the immune system which result in other side effects.

Catriona will work under the supervision of consultant nephrologist Dr Lars Erwig, who is an internationally recognised researcher in inflammatory and autoimmune diseases at the University of Aberdeen, and second supervisor Dr Neil Basu, a consultant rheumatologist who has a special interest in epidemiology and the quality of life of patients.  Their shared aim is to translate research into improving outcomes for those attending Aberdeeen Royal Infirmary’s dedicated vasculitis clinic and beyond.

Dr Erwig said: “We are absolutely delighted to receive this support from the Lauren Currie Twilight Foundation and from our charity cyclists who received match funding from BP.

“Vasculitis is a tricky condition because it is so rare and because it can present itself in a number of ways. This can make diagnosis particularly difficult for GPs, who may not have seen another case of it before.

“Vasculitis is also a relapsing disease and one of the key challenges in patient management is to give patients enough treatment to keep the disease under control while minimising the severe side effects of drugs that suppress the immune system.

“Thanks to this financial support we have been able to appoint Catriona who will be carrying out new and innovative research into vasculitis.

“We will take advantage of a state of the art life cell imaging platform developed in our laboratory  to visualise  blood cells of people with and without vasculitis under a microscope to see in three dimensions and in real time how they interact with each other. We’ll be looking at the cells that cause vasculitis to see how they interact with the lining of the blood vessel We hope that this will help us to develop a new assay to assess how active the disease is in our patients and in turn allow us to optimise their immunosuppressive treatment.

“Catriona will also be writing a blog that will appear on the Lauren Currie Twilight Foundation website which will help raise awareness to the condition.”

Catriona, who is from Aberdeen and who did her undergraduate Honours degree in Physiology at the University of Aberdeen, said: “I am delighted to have been awarded this studentship funded by the LCTF.  By utilising the state of the art technology available in Dr. Erwig’s laboratory we hope to have an enhanced understanding of vasculitis and consequently be able to translate this into improving disease management in patients.”

“The LCTF provides support groups for vasculitis patients and I was lucky enough to come along and meet some of the patients.  This gives a personal side to this studentship and allows me the opportunity to get to know the people who will one day hopefully benefit from our research.”

Fundraising income for vasculitis research at the University is channelled through the University of Aberdeen Development Trust which is an independent registered charity.  The Trust raises essential funds to support much of the University’s activities such as vital medical research as well as supporting students through the provision of scholarships, bursaries and facilities. 

Funding from alumni, individuals, companies, organisations and the community is essential for the development of research into debilitating diseases such as vasculitis as well as many other activities.