Research blast on... the Innovation Hub

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Welcome to Research Blast, a new feature that’s bringing you snippets of the ground-breaking research being funded by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. In this first feature, we explain some of the research underway at the UK Cystic Fibrosis Innovation Hub based at Cambridge University. Find out how War and Peace, Sat Navs and the mission to put a man on Mars figure in the latest CF research!

Q. What do two copies of War and Peace and the DNA of Pseudomonas aeruginosa have in common?

A. They both have approximately the same number of letters when written out!

DNA can be written out in full by listing all the building blocks or ‘bases’ that it contains. If you did this for Pseudomonas aeruginosa, the complete length of its DNA would be 6,300,000 letters – that’s the same number of letters as two copies of the novel War and Peace. These letters act as code for approximately 5,500 genes, or sets of instructions.

Researchers at the Innovation Hub are ‘switching off’ each one of these genes in Pseudomonas in turn, then testing it in the lab. If it can be shown that switching off one of these genes also switches off Pseudomonas’ toxicity, then that gene – and the proteins it produces – becomes a target for new antibiotics. Current antibiotics only target a fraction of the known genes/proteins of Pseudomonas, so there’s real hope that this novel approach will help break down antibiotic resistance. 

Q. How do you create a personalised CF health Sat Nav?

A: By combining a lot of CF health data and some very clever maths!

The idea of a health Sat Nav is that it ‘reacts’ to and assesses the environment around it, so it can be tailored to an individual’s ‘health journey’. For example, by analysing regularly collected home monitoring data, it would be able to anticipate that someone might be developing a lung exacerbation or ‘flare up’  before the symptoms develop. This prediction is based on machine-learning analysis of previous datasets from people with CF who have had exacerbations (from our SmartCareCF study). As new things are learnt and understood about lung exacerbations, the advice might change, just as a car Sat Nav updates itself in response to traffic or roadworks en route. Picking up very early signs of an exacerbation could keep someone out of hospital and reduce the course of antibiotics to less than a week.

To avoid the equivalent of driving across a field or through a river, researchers working in the Innovation Hub must develop the initial prototypes of the personal health Sat Nav, and decide which data to use and where, when and how to use it before it can be implemented.

Q. What do scientists working on the European Space Agency’s ‘Mars Express’ programme and those working on the Innovation Hub have in common?

A. They don’t let the size of their ambitions put them off!

“Developing stem cell therapies is extremely difficult. I’ve heard people say that finding drugs to treat a condition is like putting a man on the moon, but developing a successful stem cell therapy, on the same scale, is like putting a man on Mars,” explained Dr Janet Allen, our Director of Strategic Innovation. However, like scientists working at NASA and the European Space Agency, the scale of the task isn’t going to put researchers working on the Innovation Hub off!

They’re aiming to replace the mutated CFTR-carrying cells that form the lining of the lungs with cells with a healthy copy of CFTR. When these lining cells, also known as ‘epithelial cells’, wear out they are naturally replenished from a ‘pot’ of stem cells within the lungs. Researchers are aiming to replenish this stem cell pot within the lungs with these healthy cells so that all future copies of the epithelial cells would carry healthy copies of CFTR.

Find out more about the Innovation Hub or donate today to help support ground-breaking research like this.

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