Introducing Dr Kirsten Kelly

An introductory Q&A with Dr Kirsten Kelly PHD - Research Programmes and Partnerships Manager at the MND Association

We are delighted to exclusively introduce you to our very own Kirsten Kelly. Kirsten works as the Research Programmes and Partnerships Manager at the MND Association. As a Cure Finder you get exclusive access to information and people who are on the front-line fighting MND, so we are delighted to introduce you to her today.

Have you always had an interest in science?

“For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by all things science. Leaning toward the biology side of things. I can remember my first science experiment at home. It involved a conker and a scalpel. Needless to say, it didn’t end well and the trail of blood out of the kitchen and up the stairs lead my angry Mum right to me.”

Where and what did you study?

“My first degree was at Nottingham Trent University to study Chemistry and Biology. I then went to the University of Manchester to do my Masters in the Biomedical and Forensic Studies in Egyptology. My thesis project was looking at the DNA of two Ancient Egyptian Mummies to see if they were brother and sister. This really honed my interest in on genetics. It’s just fascinating! I then went to Exeter to do my PhD; in genetics.”

How did you get into MND Research?

“I was working as a Scientific Project Manager and spent a lot of my time in the laboratory doing the lab work for a private company and realised that I wasn’t enjoying doing the science to make a profit for someone rather than doing the science for the love of the science. I saw the role come up for the MND Association and applied as I wanted to use my science background in a way that would benefit people – and to my surprise I was offered the job.”

Could you give us an overview of your role?

“It is a great role. Very varied and I thoroughly enjoy it. In addition to working closely with the rest of the Research Development Directorate I am able to go out to Branches and Groups to talk about what is happening in the world of MND Research.

A big part of my role is to oversee the UK MND Collections (formerly the UK MND DNA Bank). Despite the sample collection ending in 2012, the UK MND Collections continues to be a vital resource in finding the causes and possible drug targets for the treatment of MND, as well as being a resource that can test potential drug treatments. In our September 2020 Annual Ethics report, I was able to report that there are 37 projects that have used either the samples and/or data from the MND Collections. As a result this has contributed to over 70 scientific publications.

In September 2019 I was lucky enough to represent the MND Association at the ethics board for the renewal application that would allow the continued use of the MND Collections. In November 2019 it was awarded the UK Biobank of the Year – a truly phenomenal achievement and I was honoured to represent the Association at the awards.”

Kirsten with a colleague collecting the UK Biobank of the Year award in 2019.

Has MND touched your life personally?

“Not before working at the MND Association, no. However, last year one of my husband’s friends was diagnosed with MND. It was a huge surprise to all of us.”

Do you come into contact with many people living with MND through your work?

“Yes, meeting people who are living with and affected by MND brings home why I wanted to do my job in the first place. Whilst it takes longer than we all hope, I am pleased to be able to help people understand that there is so much work happening in MND research. I always quote Professor Martin Turner who says, ‘MND research around the world is happening 24/7. When I go to bed after a day of research, other people are getting up on the other side of the world to start their day of research.’”

Where are some of the research projects currently funded by the MND Association taking place?

“We fund researchers in a number of academic laboratories across the UK. In 2020, as with other years, we also fund research in other countries across the world. For example, this year we are funding research in Germany, France, Finland and Austria.”

What excites you most about the future of MND research?

“As a genetics laboratory person at heart, I am excited about the potential of the gene therapies and how this will lead to personalised medicines. This is a very different prospect to treatment which before now has concentrated on a drug that will treat all. But, this now takes us down the route where dependent on what gene carries a mutation (or spelling mistake) will determine what treatment is given.”

P.S. One final question… were the two mummies brother and sister?

“Pretty much. It was extremely difficult to extract the DNA from the Mummies (as you can imagine!) so I had to go about it a different way. We know that if you share less than 0.1% of your mitochondrial DNA (the DNA that is found in the mitochondria, the energy factory of your cells that is 100% inherited from your Mum) you share a common female ancestor. Therefore, they were at least half-siblings!”


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