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6 Apr 2011

Scientists are shedding new light on the molecular basis of lung diseases thanks to a collaboration set up by the Healthcare and Bioscience iNet between the Universities of Leicester and Nottingham with the help of a £50,000 iNet Collaborative Research and Development (CRD) grant. Also involved in this collaboration is the Nottingham-based international diagnostic and genetic analysis company Source BioScience which is providing its next generation sequencing services. This collaboration, including two internationally-renowned teams of researchers, has attracted new investment to the region worth over £900,000 from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

The collaboration builds on the work of a consortium, comprising 96 scientists from 63 centres led by Professor Martin Tobin, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Public Health in the Department of Health Sciences and the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester and Professor Ian Hall Dean of the Medical School and Deputy director of the Nottingham Biomedical Research Unit in Respiratory diseases at the University of Nottingham. Initial findings reported five common genetic variations linked with lung function in early 2010. Spurred on by this early success, Professors Tobin and Hall have developed a strong East Midlands collaboration aimed at understanding the genetic causes of lung disease, such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and asthma.

The grant has enabled this partnership to develop to include more powerful studies to search for common genetic variants across the whole human genome and to investigate in detail the millions of nucleotides (chemical bases) that comprise the regions of the human genome so far linked to lung function. The research provides hope for better treatment for lung diseases such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). In the past it has been difficult to develop new treatments because the molecular pathways that affect the health of the lung are not completely understood. It is hoped the new pathways discovered could in the future be targeted by drugs, helping to deliver more personalised medicine.

This research wouldn’t be possible without access to ultra-fast and sophisticated next generation DNA sequencing techniques. This is where Source BioScience comes in; the Group uses the latest genetics technology platforms in its state-of-art laboratory in Nottingham. It is one of the few companies in the World with the technology and experience to do this work.

Professor Tobin says: “A large reduction in lung function occurs in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which affects around 1 in 10 adults above the age of 40 and is the fourth most common cause of death worldwide. Smoking is the major risk factor for development of COPD. Lung function and COPD cluster within families, indicating that variations in genes also predispose individuals to reduced lung function.

“Rapid advances in genetics have provided new tools to study the causes of disease. Studies can now examine the effects of more than a million genetic variants in each study participant. Such “genomewide association studies” have led to long-awaited breakthroughs in understanding the genetics of some common diseases.”

Professor Hall says “By identifying the genes important in determining lung function, we can start to unravel the underlying mechanisms which control both lung development and lung damage. This will lead to a better understanding of diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. Crucially, it could open up new opportunities to manage and treat patients with lung conditions”.

Dr Nick Ash, CEO of Source BioScience says: “ We believe our UK-leading expertise and capacity in ultrafast DNA sequencing can help the teams at Nottingham and Leicester make significant inroads into the understanding of lung disease and, in the long term, lead to the development of targeted and
personalised drugs to treat patients. We look forward to working with the teams from Leicester and Nottingham Universities on this lung disease study.”

According to recently-published research by NESTA¹, collaboration improves the capacity for innovation, which is critical at a time when the biomedical industry’s R&D productivity rates continue to fall and pharma increasingly looks to external partners for it drug discovery.

Dr Ian Barr, director of the Healthcare and Bioscience iNet says: “If the UK is going to retain its strong international position in healthcare and bioscience research, we need world-beating collaborations like this one that can attract funding from the private sector. Bringing people together from different organisations and turning them into effective collaborations is not easy but is more likely to happen
through initiatives such as the iNet and its CRD grant.”

The Healthcare and Bioscience iNet is funded by the East Midlands Development Agency (emda) and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

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