Understanding the impact of viruses on maternal and children’s health

We hope you enjoy this final instalment of our 2021 SSMRF Grant Recipient Interview Series, where we find out more about our grant recipients and their research.

This month we spoke with Professor Maria Craig, a Clinical Academic Paediatric Endocrinologist at St George Hospital; and Research Scientist Dr Ki Wook Kim, UNSW Lecturer and Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) International Postdoctoral Fellow.

Professor Craig and Dr Kim are working to understand the impact of viruses on maternal and children’s health.

Professor Maria Craig and Dr Ki Wook Kim

Meet Professor Maria Craig, Project lead

Professor Craig studied is a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in Paediatrics, has a PhD in Medicine from USYD and a Master of Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Newcastle.

“As a clinician-researcher with over 20 years of clinical and post-PhD research experience, I am passionate about improving the lives of people with type 1 diabetes, as well as women’s and children’s health in general. The potential to improve quality of life and clinical care for patients and affected families is the strongest motivator,” said Professor Craig.

Professor Craig has published more than 250 peer-reviewed articles including most highly cited paper in the British Medical Journal (575 times) that continues to be widely cited as key evidence supporting the role of enteroviruses in type 1 diabetes development.

Outside of work, Professor Craig loves to run, read books, appreciates good art, jazz music and travel (pre-pandemic).

Meet Dr Ki Wook Kim, Research Scientist

Dr Kim studied his Bachelor of Science (Honours) and a PhD in Molecular Biology and Genetics, both at USYD.

In 2016, Dr Kim was a visiting scientist at the Center for Infection and Immunity, Columbia University (NY, USA), where he received in-depth training on a cutting-edge virome capture sequencing method by Professor Ian Lipkin’s team.

Since then, Dr Kim has led multiple human virome studies (examining the population of all viruses that can infect us humans) to better understand the role of viral infections in childhood chronic diseases, mainly type 1 diabetes. Dr Kim is currently completing a Bioinformatics Graduate Certificate program through Harvard University via remote learning, supported by his JDRF Fellowship.

When asked what makes him passionate about his chosen field, Dr Kim replied, “the potential to make real-world differences in the health and well-being of pregnant women and children. I am passionate about characterising the population of viruses that contribute to chronic diseases and adverse health outcomes.”

Outside of work Dr Kim loves “cat photography! I am a proud father of two tubby cat sisters Kiera and Lyla.” He also loves “listening to music, watching streaming content/K-Dramas and exploring new Sydney neighbourhoods and food spots with my dear wife Claire”.

About the research project

In December 2021, SSMRF awarded $50,000 to Professor Craig to work on the Characterising the population of viruses that influence outcomes of the pregnancy and infant health project.

The project is built on the learnings of the Microbiome Understanding in Maternity Study (MUMS), a prospective longitudinal cohort study of maternal and infant microbiota, which was also supported by the SSMRF (2017, 2020).

Previous investigations of MUMS have focused on the population of gut bacteria and bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria). This project will characterise the population of all human viruses (viruses capable of infecting human cells) present in the gut of MUMS mothers in pregnancy and their children during early childhood.

This project will uncover the first classification of the gut virome (population of all human viruses present in the gut) in pregnant women who develop complications and their infants at birth.

“Combined with the extensive clinical data collected from these participants through comprehensive metabolic, hormonal and cardiovascular assessments as part of MUMS, we anticipate that the findings of this project will provide novel insight into the potential contribution of viruses to the development of complications in women during or post pregnancy, as well as its impact on the virome and health of infants,” said Professor Craig and Dr Kim.

“Identification of viruses that significantly increase the risk of pregnancy-related complications and/or negatively influence infant health could lead to development of novel therapeutic strategies such as vaccines or antiviral drugs for future interventions.

“Conversely, we may uncover potential protective roles of certain viruses, for which the underlying mechanisms may be exploited in the future to improve pregnancy and infant health.

“Increased understanding of the potential contribution of viruses in the development of pregnancy related complications and/or infant health may lead to novel therapies for prevention or treatment, as well as reduce the burden of guilt on mothers and families during and post pregnancy,” explain Professor Craig and Dr Kim, discussing the potential outcomes for the project.

The planned gut virome analyses of this project are expected to be completed by early 2023. Further funding is being sought to take this project to the next stage.

To give to future medical research projects, like the above, make a tax-deductible donation before 30 June.

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