Professor Murray Cairns

Professor Murray Cairns
Research Program:

Research Interests

  • Psychiatric illness / mental illness
  • Precision medicine
  • Applying genomics to inform treatment decisions

Why did you get into research?

Mr Hamilton, a gruff yet entertaining and inspiring science teacher I had in high school, made class time very memorable. This sparked my interest in the laws of nature, and I would say that influenced my decision to study science at university, and later drove me towards research. My curiosity for wanting to know “how” and “why” is what continues to drive me to this day.

After completing a degree in science, majoring in biochemistry and anatomy, with Honours in molecular genetics, I embarked upon a PhD investigating anti-tumour drugs that work by interacting with DNA. I then pursued my interests in targeting drugs more specifically to genes during my postdoctoral research This led me to consider what genes are the best targets given there is so much genetic variation within individuals. These questions still fascinate me, and I am keen to keep digging into this field more.

Real-world applications of genetic profiling are significant. If we look at psychiatric illness as an example, we can examine the genetic profile to predict how an individual might respond to different treatments. Depending on the person’s genomic signature, some treatments are more likely to improve mental health, while others may have the opposite effect. Being able to match patients with the optimal medication for them is known as ‘precision medicine’. This can improve treatment selection and help people avoid needlessly taking medication that either won’t work for them or will likely have negative side effects. Being able to more accurately predict a patient’s response to drugs will be a big leap forward in providing high quality and effective healthcare. I think this is a powerful tool that can be used across a spectrum of disorders.

What would be the ultimate goal for your research?

My aim is to discover more of the components that increase risk of disease, not just genetic risks, but also those in the environment. This would allow us to create a model of disease for each individual, with useful information to shape their lifestyle, therapy and disease management in a way that would work for them. To see that broadly implemented and become standard care is my ultimate vision.

Biography

Professor Murray Cairns is an NHMRC Senior Research Fellow, and Brawn Senior Fellow at the University of Newcastle’s College of Health, Medicine and Wellbeing. He is the head of the Precision Medicine Laboratory in the School of Biomedical Sciences and Pharmacy, which comprises a team of post-doctoral fellows, research assistants, bioinformaticians and research higher degree students.

Murray has used his expertise in bioinformatics to establish an internationally recognised laboratory specialising in complex trait genomics. He is a leader in genetically informed precision medicine and is developing transformative approaches to address the problem of heterogeneity in the treatment of complex disorders.

Murray’s previous appointments have included:

  • Industry postdoctoral position with Johnson & Johnson Research
  • Nucleics, Sydney – Senior Scientist
  • Schizophrenia Research Institute, Newcastle – Senior Research Fellow

Murray enjoys collaborating with international colleagues and other research laboratories to drive the discovery of genetic variations associated with various psychiatric and neurological disorders.

As evidence of his success, Murray has been awarded over $14 million in research grants and has published over 170 manuscripts, filed 24 patent applications and supervised more than 30 Research Higher Degree students.

Future Focus

Common chronic disorders, including cardiovascular, inflammatory, and neurological conditions, along with mental illness and cancer, all have a genetic architecture that is different between individuals, even among those with the same condition. Using systems biology, we will find new ways to untangle this complexity and identify new treatments that are better matched to the needs of individuals. I expect, in the not-too-distant future, inexpensive scanning for common genetic variants will become more commonplace as a tool to inform individualised treatment for many of these disorders. 

Specialised/Technical Skills

  • Molecular biology
  • Molecular genetics
  • Developing bioinformatics
  • Statistical genomics
  • Cellular human and animal models

Affiliations

  • International Society for Psychiatric Genetics
  • Biological Psychiatry Australia
  • Society for Mental Health Research
  • Priority Research Centre for Brain and Mental Health Research
  • Hunter Medical Research Institute