Profile a Sanfilippo Researcher: Ewan Gerken

16 Nov 2023

Meet Ewan Gerken, a PhD Candidate at The University of Adelaide. Ewan uses zebrafish models of Sanfilippo and early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease to study how these diseases affect the brain’s cells and zebrafish behaviour.

We are very grateful to all the researchers around the world, like Ewan, who are working tirelessly to solve Sanfilippo!


1. Why did you pursue science? 

Science was always my favourite subject at school. Making predictions about events invisible to the naked eye and then having those predictions come true was fascinating. Once I got to university, I enjoyed chemistry, physics and astronomy, but biology held the most interest for me. I think the idea of discovering new information about the mysteries of the human brain, while working to make a difference in people’s lives really resonated with me.

2. What got you interested in Sanfilippo research?

My Honours project was centered around Alzheimer’s disease, as was much of the work performed in our laboratory at the time. Through his connections in the dementia field, my supervisor Dr Michael Lardelli discovered the Sanfilippo Children’s Foundation and applied for funding. When he asked me if I wanted to do the Sanfilippo zebrafish project for my PhD I said yes! I hadn’t been aware of childhood dementias before then, but once I did some reading it became obvious that this area was under-researched. It was apparent that there was a need for more researchers to work alongside dedicated and passionate organisations such as the Sanfilippo Children’s Foundation.

3. How would you describe your research to a non-scientist?

Understanding rare diseases like Sanfilippo is really difficult. To make it easier, our lab creates genetic models of different neurodegenerative diseases in zebrafish (a small species of fish often found at pet shops). By giving zebrafish similar genetic signatures (mutations) to those found in children living with Sanfilippo, we can collect a lot of data about biological mechanisms which may be disrupted in the actual disease. Day-to-day work includes collecting zebrafish eggs, recording live behavioural videos, and studying the brains of the fish under the microscope.

4. How could the findings of your PhD project impact the field?

There has been a lot of progress in clinical trials for therapies to replace the missing enzymes which cause Sanfilippo, however there is still a lot that the field doesn’t fully understand about the disease. In my PhD my fellow lab members and I have created new zebrafish models of Sanfilippo types A, B and C. Analysing these fish has given us new information and reinforced existing information about what biological processes are going wrong in Sanfilippo, including similarities and differences between subtypes. Combining data from humans and different mouse and zebrafish models is a powerful way to triangulate or narrow-down the most important results which are most likely to make a difference to children living with Sanfilippo. 

5. When you’re not busy with research, what do you like to do?

I love being active! I play competitive football (soccer) in winter, do regular strength training in the gym, and go on long hikes in remote areas of Australia. I’m from Darwin originally so I try to go back home as often as I can to kick back and enjoy the outdoors. I also have quite a substantial Pokémon card collection (yes adults like Pokémon too!).