Ker Memorial Prize 2015

Edinburgh Infectious Diseases is delighted to announce that this year's winner of the Ker Memorial Prize is Dr Wei Yuan Hsieh in the Division of Infection and Pathway Medicine, University of Edinburgh.

The Ker Prize (pronounced "car") is awarded annually to the PhD student who is judged to have submitted the best thesis in infectious disease research at the University of Edinburgh.  It is support by the very generous gift of Miss Aileen Ker in memory of both her father, Dr Claude Buchanan Ker, and grandfather, Dr Frank Leighton Ker, who were prominent physicians in Edinburgh during the early part of the 20th century.

We had four excellent nominations for the prize this year:

  • Dr Marcelo Barria
    • Prof Mark Head's Lab, National Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Research and Surveillance Unit, Western General Hospital
  • Dr Alison Burrells
    • Prof Lee Innes' and Dr Frank katzer's Labs, Moredun Research Institute
  • Dr Wei Yuan Hsieh
    • Prof Peter Ghazal's Lab, Division of Infection and Pathway Medicine, Little France
  • Dr Amanda MacFarlane
    • Prof Jürgen Schwarze's Lab, MRC Centre for Inflammation Research, Queen's Medical Research Institute

The very high quality of all these candidates made it a challenging task for the judges to choose an eventual winner from amongst them.  However the calibre and impact of Wei Yuan's research on the Functional Characterisation of the Host Sterol Metabolic Network in the Interferon Antiviral Response, made him a worthy recipent of the prize.

Prof Tony Nash of the Roslin Institute, who was one of the judges, praised the intellectual contribution of Wei Yuan's work:

 His outstanding work on a novel anti-viral mechanism involving  interplay between the innate (interferon) response and cholesterol biosynthesis will impact on a wide range of infectious disease research"

Wei Yuan carried out his PhD under the supervision of Prof Peter Ghazal in the Division of Infection and Pathway Medicine, in the Chancellor's Building at Little France.  As part of his award Wei Yuan will present his work at the Edinburgh Infectious Diseases Annual Symposium at the Royal College of Physicians on 20 May 2015, and will receive a £500 prize.

Many congratulations!

Why controlling cholesterol in the body is key for strong immunity, by Wei Yuan Hsieh

Cholesterol performs essential roles in the body, such as producing sex and stress hormones and maintaining brain functions. However, high cholesterol is often associated with increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. Maintaining a healthy cholesterol level can not only reduce adverse health conditions, but also help the body fight against viral infections.  Pathogens such as viruses are known to manipulate the production of cholesterol, leading to the progression of an infection.

The research presented in my thesis investigates how viruses depend on cholesterol synthesis to multiply, and what arm of the immune system can utilize cholesterol as a weapon to fight against infection.

Initial investigation showed that using drugs like statins to fine-tune cholesterol synthesis can protect cells against viral infection. Upon further examination, it was discovered that viral replication does not solely depend on cholesterol, but rather it depends on the production of cholesterol precursors. These precursors are critical for helping viruses to escape and to spread between cells.

Remarkably, further research also revealed that the body’s immune cells can modify cholesterol to fight against infection. When immune cells detect the presence of a virus, these cells will secrete several immune hormones, known as interferons, to interfere with the replication of the virus. Interferons directly trigger the conversion of cholesterol into oxygenated cholesterol, known as 25-hydroxycholesterol (25-HC). This phenomenon can occur within six hours of infection. Studies by others have shown that this process can occur in the human body.

25-HC is potent at blocking the production of cholesterol and its precursors. As a result, it is very effective against deadly pathogens, including herpes and flu, because it not only inhibits viral replication, but also stops the virus from exiting infected cells.

Surprisingly, it was shown that 25-HC can work in conjunction with statins to provide enhanced antiviral therapeutic effects. This suggests that 25-HC plays an important role in protecting the host from infection.
The findings of my thesis have uncovered a direct link between the workings of our immune system and cholesterol metabolism, in particular, demonstrating that balancing cholesterol synthesis is the key to preventing harmful infection.

This research paves the way for designing novel antiviral therapeutic strategies through controlling the body’s metabolism.

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