Press release

Covid-19 brings research switch for Ashley

Published on 25 June 2020

When Ashley Giam left Singapore for the UK, she could not have imagined that the move would lead to her working on potential treatments for the deadliest pandemic the world has seen for a century.

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When Ashley Giam left Singapore for the UK, she could not have imagined that the move would lead to her working on potential treatments for the deadliest pandemic the world has seen for a century.

The prospect of a disease laying waste to hundreds of thousands of people and causing vast swathes of the Globe to be locked down in order to save millions more lives seemed remote to most in 2016. It was in that year that Ashley, then aged 20, came to the University of Dundee to study for a Biomedical Sciences degree. Ashley fell in love with research during her undergraduate degree, and the offer of a PhD place at the University was the reward for her stellar academic performance.

Ashley’s research sees her explore the protein AMPK, which regulates many cell signalling pathways and cellular functions. It is also a promising target for developing a treatment for bronchiectasis, a chronic condition that causes a build-up of excess mucus that can make the lungs more vulnerable to infection and can often require emergency medical attention. Treatment for bronchiectasis is currently limited to controlling chest infection symptoms using antibiotics so Ashley’s research, which explores ways in which AMPK can potentially restore some of the functions in immune cells, forms part of a significant effort at Dundee to transform the lives of bronchiectasis sufferers around the world.

That project came to a temporary halt when lockdown measures were announced across the UK in March, but the fact she was working in the laboratory of world-renowned respiratory physician and researcher, Professor James Chalmers, meant Ashley has been able to continue working and contribute to the most pressing medical need of our time – the search for Covid-19 treatments.

“I came to Dundee to do a two-year degree after completing my diploma at Singapore Polytechnic with no thought of staying beyond that and I certainly had no idea of what I would be working on a few years later,” said Ashley.

“My experiences of the Poly system meant I had carried out a lot more practical, lab-based work than my friends who went to a Junior College, so that definitely stood me in good stead when I came over to Scotland.

“As part of my degree I was required to do a research project and that’s when I met James and really became interested in pursuing research. When a PhD post opened up within his lab, he encouraged me to apply for it and I was lucky enough to get it. It has been a great experience working alongside top scientists and physicians to try and develop treatments for bronchiectasis but all that was put on hold with lockdown. That has allowed me to help with several Covid-19 being conducted here.”

The projects Ashley has worked on include STOP-COVID19, the clinical trial of brensocatib, an anti-inflammatory drug that is hoped may help to prevent the worst ravages of the novel coronavirus. Ashley is also now playing a leading role in the study of another new anti-inflammatory drug called SFX-01. This medication reduces lung damage through the pathway that Ashley has been studying during her PhD. She is now working in the laboratory to understand whether this medicine could reduce the number of coronavirus patients requiring mechanical ventilation and, ultimately, cutting death rates from the disease.

“With the Covid-19 outbreak, the priorities of labs around the world shifted and here at Dundee we changed direction to focus on what we could do given the expertise here,” continued Ashley. “From the top researchers to PhD students like myself, everyone has been given the chance to play their part. I have been trying to embrace this opportunity and learn all I can from it. PhD students here are involved in research with the potential to make a real difference to people around the world, but obviously I never expected to be working on anything like this.

“All my family are still at home in Singapore. We speak every day but it’s hard being away from them at a time like this I don’t think my Dad understand what I am doing and worries about me so I have to explain to him that I am working in a lab and not dealing with patients face to face. It is nice to think that, in some small way, what I am doing here might help people at home and in the rest of the world.”


Grant Hill

Senior Public Affairs Officer

+44 (0)1382 384768