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Dr Azim Ansari, Sir Henry Dale Fellow and Group Leader at NDM’s Experimental Medicine Division, is among the three outstanding hepatitis researchers who have been announced as winners of the Medical Research Foundation’s Emerging Leaders Prize.

Hepatitis is one of the Medical Research Foundation’s longest-standing research priorities. In the last decade, MRF have supported HCV Research UK – one of the largest hepatitis C research cohorts in the world – as well as six research fellowships, for scientists tackling both viral and autoimmune hepatitis.

The Emerging Leaders Prize awards are designed to support research leaders of the future with flexible funding that can be used to enhance career development as well as their research. Dr Hamish Innes, Senior Research Fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University, secured first place; followed by Dr Azim Ansari, Group Leader at NDM’s Experimental Medicine Division; Dr Joe Grove, Senior Lecturer in Virology at MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, was highly commended.

As a statistical geneticist, Dr Azim Ansari is interested in understanding how the combination of variations in both the patient's genetic code and the virus's genetic code contributes to the different outcomes observed in individuals with HCV and HBV infections. In order for viruses to reproduce, they rely on the machinery inside their host's cells. Making new virus particles involves interactions between viral and host proteins.

Dr Ansari is conducting association tests to link the genetic differences of both the host and the virus. This could help reveal how their genes interact, pointing out areas where their genetic codes may clash; known as ‘genomic conflict’.

Genetic variations among individuals can influence how they respond to infections, including HCV and HBV. Viruses, like HCV and HBV, also have their own genetic material, typically in the form of RNA or DNA. The genetic makeup of viruses can affect their behaviour, how they interact with the host's cells, and the severity of the infection.

Dr Ansari said: 'I am excited about the possibilities that lie ahead and grateful for the support of the Medical Research Foundation and contribution of the donors who made this award possible. Together, we can improve clinical outcomes for patients and get closer to elimination of viral hepatitis.'

His research results may help to create better vaccines, find new targets for drugs, and develop innovative treatments to fight infections more effectively.

With the Emerging Leaders Prize funding, Dr Ansari plans to attend a leadership course and to extend his research. He will investigate transcriptomics of 200 liver biopsies from individuals with HCV infection. Ultimately, he hopes to contribute to advancements in preventing, diagnosing, and treating liver diseases.

Dr Angela Hind, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Foundation, said: ‘We want to continue making a difference to the study of hepatitis by supporting the research leaders of the future, and our 2023 Emerging Leaders Prize-winners are all making a significant impact in this field. By investigating the fundamental causes of hepatitis and the way we treat it, their research could lead to much-needed new approaches to diagnosis and treatment. In turn, these advances could significantly improve the lives of patients living with hepatitis and hepatitis-related illness.

The prize-winners received their awards at a ceremony in London on Wednesday 22 November 2023.