"Computer models really make you think about CF biology in a different way”: Dr Guy Moss on a Trust-funded research study

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Last month we met up with UCL-based PhD student Arthur Mitchell and his research supervisors, Dr Guy Moss and Professor Vivek Dua, to hear about how they’re using mathematical modelling to understand what’s happening to mucus in the lungs of people with CF. Arthur’s PhD was co-funded by UCL and by the Trust through a Venture and Innovation Award.

What is the research about?

The researchers are interested in finding out how to improve the clearance of mucus in the lungs of people with CF. In turn, this could improve lung health.

To play its role in clearing bugs and particulates from the lungs, mucus needs to be the right thickness and stretchiness – determined by its acidity and the amount of water it holds. There are lots of different factors that affect how much water is in the mucus and whether it is at the right ‘pH‘ or acidity. It can be very complex to work out what’s going on!

To help work out what is happening, physiologist Dr Guy Moss, who works at University College London (UCL) specialising in understanding how the cells that line the lung cells work, started working with Professor Vivek Dua from the Chemical Engineering Department, also at UCL.

First, they linked together the measurements made in the lab with a mathematical model. The next stage was to build and apply computer simulations to understand more about the changes in mucus in the lungs of people with CF.

PhD student Arthur Mitchell is applying his computer science expertise to understand what is happening to mucus in the lungs.

After my computer science degree, I knew I wanted to move into medical research. The first thing I noticed was how much smaller the datasets are in biology in comparison to other areas! I went from working with 50,000 data points to working with eight!

Arthur Mitchell, PhD student

"Starting my PhD at the beginning of the pandemic was tough, but I was lucky as I was able to develop the computer model at home during lockdown. As the restrictions eased, and we were able to come into the university, I was able to start generating data in the lab to test my model,” Arthur told us.

Benefits of computer modelling

“There are lots of advantages to being able to use computer models in biology”, explained Professor Vivek Dua. “We can use models to helps us understand what is happening on the surface of the lungs, we can predict what might happen when changes take place, and it also help us to decide what experiments we should be doing in the lab next. Helping to develop these computer models, I’ve learnt a lot about the biology of the lungs too!”

“Having a model like this really changes how you think about the biology of the cells lining our lungs. It has made me look again at the results of previous studies in a new way,” commented Dr Guy Moss.

What difference could this research make for people with CF?

One way to restore the properties of mucus for people with CF is to trigger the lung cells to move more water to the surface of the cells, diluting the mucus. Arthur’s PhD research studies have focused on a way to do this by activating a ‘BK’ protein. Further research is needed to test whether chemicals designed to activate this protein could be effective as a medicine in cystic fibrosis.

Learn more about Arthur Mitchell and his PhD research studies in this month’s ‘Inside the lab’ researcher profile.

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic condition which causes sticky mucus to build up in the lungs and digestive system. It affects more than 10,900 people in the UK. One in 25 of us carries the faulty gene that causes it, usually without knowing.

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