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How my research impacts IPF

Peter is researching why cells function differently in people with IPF to shed light on what causes IPF.

Peter in the lab

I first got interested in respiratory medicine when I did my PhD in Australia and studied viruses that cause the common cold. Colds are the most common trigger that makes respiratory diseases worse.

This led me to more research, this time in America. Here I investigated how people with asthma respond to colds. I focused particularly on looking at what happened in the cells that line their airways. I found that when people with asthma had an attack during a cold, their airway cells switched on and off a distinct set of genes.

I moved to the UK to look deeper into what controls the genes in the airway cells in people with asthma. I studied a process known as epigenetics: how the DNA that contains our genes is packed into each cell of our body.


There are about 2 metres of DNA in every cell of our bodies! This is only possible because the DNA binds tightly to proteins in a cell, and the proteins are chemically changed so they can fold, twist and pack together even more tightly. 

Each cell in our bodies needs genes to function as it should. These genes are contained inside the tightly-packed DNA. To access these genes at the right time, so they to do what they should, chemical changes are made to the DNA. This process is called epigenetics.

Different cells in our bodies have different epigenetic profiles.

And when we have a disease, affected cells can change their epigenetic profiles, so they don’t function as they should.

My research established that genes in the airway cells of people with asthma were packed differently to those without. This made me ask: is this also true in other cells in our respiratory system? Is it also true for other lung conditions such as IPF?

My current research

Following my interest, I am now looking into epigenetic processes in cells found in the lungs of people with IPF. I am part of the team of Professor Toby Maher, British Lung Foundation Chair in Respiratory Research at Imperial College London.

My research has the potential to provide clues into what causes IPF and why. We’ve discovered that immune cells in the lungs of people with IPF behave and function very differently. We now want to find out what makes that happen so we can use drugs to reset the epigenetic profiles of the cells and make them function normally again. 

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Dr Peter McErlean

Dr McErlean is a research associate at Imperial College London. He's looking into what causes IPF.

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10 September 2019