Born and raised in a small town in south-west Ireland, Dr Aideen McInerney-Leo’s career in genetic fatalism came as a result of passion, persistence and a pinch of fate.
“I was always interested in biology in school, but studying plants just didn’t excite me,” Dr McInerney-Leo explains.
Babysitting a child with cystic fibrosis gave Dr McInerney-Leo a new desire to explore the human element of genetics, so she moved to London to undertake a degree in Human Genetics.
After an uninspiring lab session, Dr McInerney-Leo found herself in front of Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, where she accepted a summer studentship.
“That summer, I found my raison d’être: I wanted to work in clinical genetics.”
In the years that followed, Dr McInerney-Leo met her husband, Townsville native Associate Professor Paul Leo, had two children, completed her master’s, moved to Maryland in the United States of America and delved into research on hereditary conditions.
“Understanding how genetic conditions and genetic testing affected people’s lives was my primary focus.
“I was fascinated that people could have the same risk of developing a condition but very different ways of handling the news, based on their individual experiences.”
In 2006, the family relocated to Australia and Dr McInerney-Leo began working at UQ’s Diamantina Institute (UQDI) as part of a gene discovery project.
After learning how to analyse enormous amounts of data, Dr McInerney-Leo identified a new gene that caused a rare form of dwarfism.
“I can’t tell you how exciting that was for me,” she recalls.
“After years of clinical practice, we could now find out what condition a child had, how it was inherited, what the prognosis was and the likelihood of having another child with the same condition. I was hooked!”
Dr McInerney-Leo is now undertaking a fellowship at UQDI, looking into ‘genetic fatalism’ and the behaviours of people who have a genetic predisposition to melanoma.
“When someone is told they have a genetic predisposition to melanoma, will they do everything they can to prevent getting the disease, or will they think they’re doomed and not employ protective behaviours like applying sunscreen?
“People assume that because they look like dad that they’ll get the same condition he had, or think they are ‘off the hook’ because they look like mum.
“This way of thinking is particularly prevalent in adult onset conditions like hereditary cancers or neurological conditions.
“Research into this area looks at how much people feel empowered or disempowered to engage in health-protective behaviours based on their genetic predisposition.
“During this project, I will offer members of high-risk melanoma families genetic counselling and testing for melanoma genes and capture risk perception, psychological wellbeing and health behaviours.
“It would be very powerful if those at greatest risk for melanoma engaged in an array of preventative behaviours and were vigilant in their surveillance so any malignancies were detected as soon as possible.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Queensland could boast that we are no longer the melanoma capital of the world?