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Dr Kerry Hilligan awarded HRC Emerging Researcher First Grant

31 May 2022

The Malaghan Institute’s Dr Kerry Hilligan has been awarded a prestigious Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) Emerging Researcher First Grant worth $250,000 over three years.

Dr Kerry Hilligan (right) with Professor Franca Ronchese

Dr Hilligan’s research focuses on understanding how early infections or challenges to a developing immune system shape and influence it later in life. Her project, ‘Improving population health through education of the innate immune system,’ will help establish Dr Hilligan’s research programme at the Malaghan Institute, and build on expertise gained at the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, USA over the last four years.

Dr Hilligan has been working in Dr Alan Sher’s Laboratory at NIAID which, among other research areas, investigates how infectious organisms, such as the bacteria that causes tuberculosis influences the immune system in regards to future infections. She will return to the Malaghan Institute later this year, to commence her HRC-funded project.

“I hope that my research will assist in identifying processes that are associated with protective immune responses,” says Dr Hilligan. “The aim is to then incorporate targeting of these pathways in the development of vaccines and other preventative measures.”

How our immune system faces new infectious challenges is shaped by the threats it has faced before. This relatively new area of research aims to shed light not just on how the immune system fights infections, but also how it learns or distinguishes between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immune responses. Distinguishing between these responses becomes important, as ‘bad’ or unwanted immune responses can give rise to conditions such as allergic or autoimmune diseases.

“With the immune system – like pretty much everything – practice and learning is key,” says Dr Hilligan. “An immune system that develops in the absence of all germs does not work well at all, so we know that exposure to different types of bugs is important to teach the immune system how to function effectively. Exactly what lessons all these different bugs teach the immune system is not clear – this is what I am investigating.”

Dr Hilligan’s former supervisor Professor Franca Ronchese says the grant is a wonderful opportunity for Kerry to establish an independent research programme at the Malaghan Institute. 

“The HRC Emerging Researcher Grant recognises young talent that can help create a healthier future for all New Zealanders, of which Kerry is well-deserving. Her research on how infection can educate the immune system to better fight other pathogens can help explain why we are so vulnerable to infections such as COVID-19.”