Professor Mervyn Merrilees was awarded the inaugural Rare Disease Day Research Award in recognition of his significant contributions to rare diseases in New Zealand.
His research has focused on the rare progressive infiltrative lung condition called lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM) that affects women, usually between the ages of 25 to 45. Through processes yet to be understood, smooth muscle cells of unknown origin invade the lungs and increasingly compromise the transfer of oxygen, to the extent that lung transplantation may be required. There are currently 30 women with LAM in New Zealand, but likely that others remain undiagnosed.
Professor Merrilees has been a long-term supporter of the LAM community. He has been involved with LAM research and patients in New Zealand for two decades, from the time the underlying genetic basis was discovered through to the recent rapid advances leading to clinical trials. The perspective that he has been able to bring to understanding LAM has been greatly helped by his wider investigations into the role of the extracellular matrix and inflammation in more common diseases, such as heart disease. Recently he co-authored a paper on LAM with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania in which they presented findings to show that a new approach, involving stimulation of the immune system to attack LAM cells, may have promising potential as a new therapy.
Professor Merrilees is the Scientific Advisor for the New Zealand LAM Charitable Trust.