Dr James O’Kelly

Dr James O´Kelly – Guts UK Amelie Waring Fellowship 2018

Institution: University of Edinburgh
Title: Single cell definition of the mechanistic role of kynurenine monooxygenase at the innate immune interface in acute pancreatitis
Project Start Date:  7 August 2019
Completion Date: 6 August 2022


Acute pancreatitis is a disease where the pancreas gland becomes inflamed and damaged, normally caused by excess alcohol consumption or gallstones. It is a common cause for emergency surgical admission to hospital, and when severe will kill 1 in 4 patients affected.

Tell us a little about your background

I graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 2013 and stayed on in South East Scotland for surgical training. After making the decision to pursue a career in general surgery, I moved to Glasgow to complete my higher surgical training. I have now taken time out of this programme to complete a 3 year PhD funded by Guts UK, and will have 4 years of specialty training left when I return.

Why did you want to pursue research into pancreatitis?
As a general surgeon we are responsible for patients who present to hospital with acute pancreatitis, and I have already had plenty of experience of just how devastating a condition it can be. I still find it surprising how sick young, otherwise healthy patients can become. A line I often repeat to new admissions is “there is nothing we can do
to turn it off, we just have to let it burn itself out.” My research project will help us better understand why pancreatitis makes some people so sick and will hopefully help with development of new treatments in the future.

How is your research going to so far?

The main focus of my project is trying to understand how an enzyme (known as KMO) interacts with the immune system in acute severe pancreatitis. We know that KMO produces a chemical which directly damages organs. So far I have been conducting experiments to see how KMO stimulates immune cells and soon, I will be moving on to see what changes and manipulations are brought about by KMO.

What challenges have you encountered?

Before beginning my research I did not have any prior experience of working in a lab, so the main challenges for me have been technical. It has been a steep learning curve, but I have enjoyed it and can now confidently set up and run my own experiments.

What are your hopes for the future?

I hope to spend the next couple of years completing my PhD work, as well as contributing to other work within our research group – which is all aimed at improving our understanding of acute pancreatitis. From there, I would like to continue researching pancreatitis when I return to surgical training.

“Guts UK’s research fellowship enables trainees like myself to not only study pancreatitis, but to develop our research skills and experience which we will continue to use throughout our careers. The more highly trained researchers there are looking at pancreatitis, the sooner we will develop new effective treatments.”

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