I hadn’t planned to get into research, but I discovered a passion for investigating the immune system following the completion of my undergraduate degree. I’m fascinated by how the gastrointestinal immune system and microbiota work together to protect and maintain the intestinal environment. My work is focused on identifying how this relationship is disrupted in GI disease, with the hope of identifying treatment targets to improve patient quality of life.
Gastrointestinal conditions affect a large proportion of the population and have debilitating impacts on quality of life. We know so little about how the gastrointestinal immune system and microbiota are involved in common functional gastrointestinal conditions, food allergies and food intolerances, which means treatment options for these conditions are limited, and patient symptoms are often poorly managed. The ultimate goal for my research is to identify ways in which the microbiota and immune system interact to drive subtle inflammation and symptom onset in GI patients. I want my work to identify new management and treatment strategies for patients with these conditions.
Grace Burns is a PhD candidate in Immunology and Microbiology, working in the Priority Research Centre for Digestive Health and Neurogastroenterology. Her research aims to characterise immune interactions in the small intestine and circulation of patients with functional dyspepsia (FD) that may drive the chronic symptoms that diminish patient quality of life.
Grace was awarded a Bachelor of Medical Science (Pathology)/Bachelor of Forensic Biotechnology double degree in 2015 from Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga. After moving to Newcastle, she completed a Bachelor of Biomedical Science (Honours First Class) qualification in 2016 under the supervision of Prof. Simon Keely and A/Prof. Jay Horvat, investigating the development of immune responses to food proteins following antibiotic treatment.
In 2017, Grace commenced her PhD project, focused on elucidating immune pathways that drive the onset and continuation of symptoms in FD. The lack of knowledge surrounding the pathophysiological features and immune activation of FD has led to the diagnosis of this condition being solely reliant on self-reported symptoms and a negative endoscopic investigation. Consequently, patient management is complicated by a lack of treatable pathology or effective therapeutic options. Grace’s work in this area is focused on demonstrating that functional gastrointestinal conditions are driven by disruptions in homeostasis, activating the immune system and subsequently driving symptom onset. Her work has identified a link between a specific alteration in the small intestinal microbiota and activation of the immune system in these patients, representing a potential diagnostic test to replace the current symptom-based diagnostic process for FD. In addition, she is currently working to characterise the immune cell populations that are altered between FD patients and a control cohort, with the aim of distinguishing specific mechanisms driving disease.
Upon completion of my PhD, I am planning to continue my work on the immune system in functional GI conditions as a post-doctoral researcher. The broad focus of this research will be how food and microbial antigens are associated with the immune response in such conditions. In addition, I am interested in investigating how the immune system is impacted by the extra-intestinal consequences of functional GI disorders, such as sleep disturbances and chronic fatigue. I also hope to continue expanding on the work from my Honours year, looking at how homeostatic disturbances in the small intestine may drive development of food allergies and non-allergic food intolerances in response to antibiotic modulation of the microbiota.