Stuart Elborn and Michael Tunney are at the forefront of one of the most ambitious studies ever undertaken into the causes and treatment of Cystic Fibrosis lung disease. An international research project being carried out at Queen's, the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and the University of North Carolina will involve more than 450 patients across the three sites.
Stuart is Director of the new Centre for Infection and Immunity in the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences, responsible for 21 senior investigators and their teams. He sees the work now being undertaken as vital progress in a field that has dominated his life since his days as a medical student at Queen's.
He says, "When I started my training in respiratory medicine I realised there was a huge challenge in taking care of people with Cystic Fibrosis who were living longer, moving from childhood to adulthood, and that adult physicians were not sufficiently trained to meet the challenge."
He left Northern Ireland to pursue his ideas, gaining experience in Nottingham and Cardiff, then he came back to set up an NHS clinical service and research programme, later taking on an academic post at Queen's. He now has both clinical and research responsibilities, "but the patients come first."
Michael studied for both his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in the School of Pharmacy at Queen's. His PhD had involved investigating infection of urinary catheters "and that got me into microbiology in a big way."
In his first work with Stuart, they studied drug levels in sputum from Cystic Fibrosis patients, asking if they matched what was needed to have an effect against bacteria. Using a combination of specialist microbiology techniques and DNA fingerprinting methods, their work has now led to identifying a much wider range of bacteria causing infection. They have discovered bacteria previously unidentified and which do not require oxygen to live. The current programme is designed to establish the role of these organisms in causing infection and damage in the Cystic Fibrosis lung and to determine more effective antibiotic therapies. There is funding support from Northern Ireland R&D and the Medical Research Council.
Stuart says, "We work very closely with Cliff Taggart here at the Centre. Our activity links in very strongly with his EPSRC-funded programme and his work on effective drug levels to kill bacteria."
Michael explains, "We want to look at patients in two conditions, when they're stable and coming in for routine check-ups, and when they get a flare-up of their lung infection. Our focus is on the 18+ age group. The three centres are recruiting individually, but we have developed the standard protocols which all the centres are using."
Stuart says, "We have a very well-educated group of young people who are enthusiastic to help, but we're trying to do this research in a way that doesn't interfere with their lives. These are busy, active individuals, with families, in full-time education. We're very much building the research around what they can do for us in terms of extra time."
As Michael sees it, "The great thing would be that at the end of this study we can make a difference to people."
Stuart adds, "I'm very confident about the robustness of the science we're researching. And we're seeing patients, hospitals and universities working together on real issues that are important for people with this disease. The success of this will be that we understand better how to use antibiotics in treating people with Cystic Fibrosis. By treating their infection better they'll have better quality of life and will live longer."
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