WA researchers in hunt for key thyroid genes

A WA Health researcher seeking insights into the role played by genetics in thyroid function is one of 139 high-performing researchers awarded funding in the latest round of the Medical and Health Research Infrastructure Fund (MHRIF).

Clinical Professor John Walsh and honours student Ms Kassandra Leatherbarrow
Clinical Professor John Walsh and honours student Ms Kassandra Leatherbarrow

John Walsh, a consultant endocrinologist at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and a clinical professor at the University of Western Australia is leading a highly successful team of researchers investigating large samples of population data. The team has made substantial progress in identifying specific genes that influence thyroid function and the development of thyroid disease.

Professor Walsh said that better insights were needed into thyroid function and disease because even in healthy people, small differences in thyroid function could produce significant changes in health indicators such as body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides, and cardiovascular health.

“If we can find the specific genes – and gene modifications – that are instrumental in thyroid function and the development of thyroid disease, we can begin to look for new ways of tackling thyroid conditions,” he said.

Thyroid hormones act on almost every tissue in the body and affect basal metabolic rate, protein synthesis, fat and carbohydrate metabolism, and cellular response to stimuli such as adrenaline.

Professor Walsh said that although thyroid disease – which included hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism – affected up to 10 per cent of the population, the range of treatments for the condition was limited and existing therapies were less than optimal for all patients.

The MHRIF was established in 1997 to promote excellence in medical and health research in Western Australia by providing high-performing researchers with financial support to meet the day-to-day infrastructure costs associated with their projects.

Professor Walsh will use his MHRIF grant to buy specialist laboratory equipment to support the team’s ongoing, cutting-edge research.

Western Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Gary Geelhoed said Professor Walsh was to be congratulated on his work that would help advance an important stream of medical research.

Professor Geelhoed said that $6 million had been distributed to WA researchers across hospitals, universities and medical research institutes in this latest round of the MHRIF program.