A PhD student at a Scottish university has won a prestigious award naming her as one of the best young scientists in her field.

Holly Keir, 27, who is working on her PhD at the University of Dundee, received the British Thoracic Society’s Early Career Investigator Award at the organisations annual winter meeting.

The award came after the student gave a presentation on her research into bronchiectasis, a severe inflammatory lung condition.

Keir led studies which showed for the first time that an excessive type of immune response, called neutrophil extracellular trap formation (NETs) was present in bronchiectasis – and this is linked to worsening symptoms.

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She also demonstrated how antibiotic treatment can reduce NET levels in lungs and lead to improved outcomes.

Keir has spent the past year working on potential treatments for Covid-19. Her work on NETs was a key factor in setting up STOP-COVID, a UK-wide clinical trial of a drug it is hoped can prevent the worst effects of the disease.

The student co-led the lab team examining how the drug Brensocatib affects immune systems in patients with the virus.

“I am absolutely delighted to have won this award and I can’t really believe it, to be honest,” she said.

“It is so rewarding to have the work you give so much to recognised in this way.”

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She went on: “The immune system normally tries to clear infections such as viruses or bacteria from the lungs without damaging the lung tissue around them. Our research has shown how this goes wrong in lung conditions. When this happens, white blood cells called neutrophils explode, forming NETs that damage the lungs.”

Previous Brensocatib trials have shown that its anti-inflammatory properties have the potential to treat the cycle of inflammation, infection and damage in lung disease patients.

“Showing how the immune system goes wrong is the key to unlocking new treatments, both for chronic lung conditions and perhaps also for Covid-19,” Keir continued. “It has been intense working on STOP-COVID as well as carrying out my PhD work, but it has been an invaluable experience professionally and I am glad to have been able to play some part in the battle against Covid.”

Keir graduated from Dundee in 2016 with a degree in biological sciences before going on to work as a technician. She then started a PhD the following year in the lab of Professor James Chalmers, one of the UK’s leading lung experts.

The early career investigator award she has received is highly competitive, and is awarded in recognition of the very best basic, translational or clinical research performed in the UK respiratory community by an early career researcher.

The results of Keir’s study have now been published in the leading medical journal The Lancet Respiratory Medicine.