We're making breakthroughs in COPD research

Dr Jonathan Baker is on a team of researchers investigating what causes COPD, and they're making some exciting breakthroughs. 

Dr Jonathan Baker

I’m a researcher that’s working on a team investigating the idea that COPD is a disease of accelerated ageing.

The work we’re doing is very exciting. We’ve found that how well people’s lungs work declines at a much faster rate in people with COPD than in other people of the same age.

We think this shows that people living with COPD have genes that cause accelerated ageing in their lungs. 

'Senescent' cells

We think this might be because patients with COPD have more ‘senesecent’ cells in their lungs. Senescent is a word that describes cells that can’t divide anymore, so they can’t repair themselves. 

But, they’re also still active in other ways, which means they can cause inflammation in the lungs, and cause damage. For a cell to cause damage, but not repair is a problem! 

So, we’re investigating why this is happening more in people living with COPD than in people who don’t have COPD, who are a similar age, so we know it's not just a part of getting older. 

Why do people with COPD have more senescent cells?

We think one of the reasons that people with COPD have more of these senescent cells in is because of a lack of an anti-ageing protein called Sirtuin-1. In people with COPD, this anti-ageing molecule isn’t regulated properly, so there's less of it than in someone who doesn't have COPD who's the same age. 

We think it’s this lack of the Sirtuin-1 molecule that’s causing the accelerated ageing of the lung.

So now, we're looking at why this is happening. 

How Sirtuin-1 could be the key

My project, which the BLF is helping fund, looks at how a small ‘miRNA’  - a molecule that can inhibit proteins - may be bringing down the levels of Sirtuin-1 in people with COPD. People with COPD have more of this miRNA, which means they have less Sirtuin-1. 

It's a very new way of looking at COPD.

We've been experimenting on cells taken from people with COPD, and found that by reducing the amount of this miRNA, we can raise the levels of Sirtuin-1. This brings down the senescent cells that cause inflammation and damage.

It’s really promising, and a very new way of looking at COPD.

What this means

Identifying the right molecules means we could use them as ‘biomarkers’, which could be positive for all sorts of reasons. It could mean that we get better at detecting people with COPD earlier, and so people could get a diagnosis and start treatment sooner - if we can work out how!

Another thing that's very interesting is that lots of pharmaceutical and biotech companies are starting to get interested in targeting these senescent cells.

They're interested in working out if they can use this information to create new drugs that repair the inflammation these cells cause. There’s a big drive to see if it is possible, and testing has begun on new ‘senolytic’ therapies in labs. 

The work I'm doing is so important

It’s been amazing to work with the BLF and talk to people who are living with COPD, especially the Breathe Easy group based in the Isle of Man who helped fund my research!  It’s helped me to understand even more why the work I’m doing is so important, and how what we achieve could help people in the future.

The kind of research we’re doing at the moment is new and novel. Things are a long way off, but it would be so wonderful to work towards a therapy for people with COPD that slows down the condition’s progression. At the moment, there’s only treatment for the symptoms, not the disease itself.

This could lead to much better treatments for people living with COPD.

We’re going to keep on working, and looking for new ways to try and understand how COPD works, why it's happening, and see if we can get a better understanding of why the inflammation happens, and as a result, the best way to target the things that are causing so much damage in the lungs.

If we do that, it could lead to much better treatments for people living with COPD.

I couldn’t do the work I’m doing right now without the support from the BLF. As a young scientist, my work really benefits from being sponsored by them.

Do you have a story to tell? It could be about your lung condition, a friend or relative you know who lives with one, or how caring for them impacts your life. We'd love to hear what you've got to say!

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16 November 2018