Associate Professor Kirsten Perrett

Unlocking the Mystery Behind COVID-19 Immunity

Dr. Kirsten Perrett is leading new research that could help protect communities


Associate Professor Kirsten Perrett is a paediatrician at Australia’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) – one of the world’s top three child health research institutes – and has spent 16 years studying children’s immune systems. We are proud to fund research she is co-leading to help find ways to fight COVID-19 in kids.

We sat down with Dr Perrett to learn more about how the MCRI’s “COVID Immune” research could help protect children – and our communities.

The more we know about the disease, the better we can manage it.”


Rio Tinto and MCRI

In May 2020, we donated A$670,000 to the MCRI, in Melbourne, Australia, to help Dr Perrett and the team research COVID-19’s impact on children. We are proud to play some small part in expanding the world’s understanding of the virus and help protect our communities – and our kids.

 

Editor: Kirsten, firstly – thank you for the important work you and the team are doing at MCRI. Early last year you started researching how COVID-19 affects children’s immune systems. What do you hope to find?

Dr Perrett: Well, COVID-19 behaves very differently to almost every other virus. One of the biggest differences is that it seems to affect fewer children than adults. So we want to understand the reasons for that. What’s different about kids’ immune systems that may make them less susceptible to COVID-19, when compared to adults? And for kids who do get it, why do some get sicker than others? And how long does their immunity last?

Ed: How do you think this research will help protect communities?

DP: It’s important for a number of reasons. Understanding what stops some kids from getting COVID-19, or from getting very sick with it, can help us find vaccines and treatments.

It can also help governments develop public health policies on things like school closures and quarantine procedures. And the more we know about the disease, the better we can manage it, and the quicker life can get back to normal for everyone.


Meet Dr. Kirsten Perrett

Were you always interested in science?

“My Dad was a scientist and Mum a teacher, so I was brought up in a family which encouraged us to think about the “why and how” of things around us. In my latter years of high school I knew I wanted to pursue a career in research and when I got into medicine, I soon realised I would get to have the best of both worlds. I get to enjoy the immediate rewards of helping the child and family in my clinic and the excitement that comes with leading my clinical research team on projects to provide evidence to inform clinical care with the potential to benefit millions of children.“

What would you say to girls considering a career in medicine or science?

“Go for it!!”

Why did you choose paediatrics as your speciality?

“Because most of the time, children bounce back from their illness extremely quickly and the joy in seeing them recover and knowing that in some small way that you may have helped in that process is incredibly rewarding.”

What achievement are you most proud of?

“Managing our team and maintaining clinical research continuity through the two periods of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in Melbourne.”

What’s the biggest challenge of being a researcher?

“As a clinician researcher, the biggest challenge is juggling the competing demands of clinical work, research and family. The second biggest and constant challenge is securing enough money to support our amazing staff and projects to enable the clinical research questions to be answered.”

Research is a long-term game; how do you stay motivated?

“The children and families in my clinic constantly motivate! They are thankful for hearing the latest research evidence and often begging for the next opportunity for their child to be involved in one of our clinical trials. Knowing that my research can help to make a difference is incredibly motivating. There is just so much work to do!”

What do you like to do in your spare time?

“Running, netball, tennis and hanging out with my husband, kids and friends… although I rarely have any spare time!”

 

Ed: You mentioned that COVID-19 affects kids and adults differently. As a parent of two young children, I find that really surprising…my kids are ALWAYS getting sick from viruses.

DP: Yes, it’s one of the biggest mysteries about COVID-19! It infects fewer children than adults, and those children who do get COVID-19 generally have milder symptoms than adults. There are a lot of theories about why this could be. One is that the receptor, which is the part of our cells that the virus sticks to, may not be very common in the airways and blood vessels of children and so the virus is less able to enter and infect the cells. But the bottom line is we don’t really know why, and our research seeks to help us understand it more.

Ed: But it’s still possible for kids to get sick from it, right?

DP: Yes, they absolutely can. Symptoms to look out for include nausea, headache, fever, sore throat, a runny nose, dry cough, and sometimes diarrhoea. If your child has any of these symptoms, you should call your doctor.

There have been some cases of children getting very sick from COVID-19, but thankfully it’s rare.

Ed: We know that good hygiene and physical distancing are ways we can help stay healthy. But what about mental wellbeing? What should we be doing to support our kids?

DP: That’s a great question – the pandemic has changed the way we live, and so it’s not surprising we may be feeling stressed or anxious. And kids have faced huge changes too over the past year, whether it’s home schooling or not seeing grandparents and friends.

There are some simple things you can do – having a routine is really important for younger children, because it helps them feel secure and make sense of their day.

Mindfulness is also important for managing anxiety – it can be as simple as reducing screen time and spending time quietly reading a book together.

For older children, talking about the news and what’s worrying them is important, and also making sure they stay connected with their friends. My MCRI colleagues have done a lot of work in this area – you can find lots of tips on our website.