Intracellular zinc critical for healthy airway cells


19 Jul 2017

Can you describe the aim of your research in 10 words?

Targeting disease-related molecular dysfunction at the airway epithelium

What do you know/have discovered about this topic so far?

The airway epithelium represents a vast and complex immunological interface to the environment which we now know is a site responsible for the pathogenesis of many chronic respiratory diseases. During my research I have discovered that while airway epithelial cells are extraordinarily hardy, they can possess intrinsic defects or become defective due to environmental insults and chronic inflammation.

Of note, I and my colleges have identified the central importance of intracellular zinc as a critical factor for the maintenance of airway epithelial cell viability, barrier function, and immunological homeostasis.

In particularly, limitations in zinc can be caused by chronic inflammation and cigarette smoke exposure at the airways, leading to dyshomeostasis of autophagy, a highly conserved process which regulates (for example) cellular recycling processes.

This molecular disruption may represent a fundamental issue for many individuals suffering from chronic airway disease, and I am currently targeting this phenomenon for the amelioration of COPD and airway diseases caused by microbial infection.

What aspect of this research excites you the most?

I am blown away by the discoveries medical research has made using elegant and incisive hypotheses, that agree with the clinical understanding of airway disease. Hence, the greatest enjoyment I receive from my research is using invaluable clinical samples provided by the generosity of our participants, and made possible by our expert clinical team members, to make discoveries at the bench which unravel a new aspect of the molecular basis of disease. I think these are the moments any research works towards.

What’s your Holy Grail; the one thing you’d like to achieve in your research?

I would like to have a hand in ushering in a real treatment for respiratory diseases that afflict the unfortunate such as children suffering from CF and asthma. The genetic basis of disease is undoubtedly the most challenging to combat, and strikes those who have done the right things to keep themselves healthy. Specifically for me, I want to be part of that team or collaboration that asks the right questions, and thereby pioneers a clear research trajectory that enables children with respiratory disease to breath as well as another member of the community.

What has been/will be your biggest hurdle?

Definitely life balance, loneliness and exhaustion. As any researcher will tell you, medical research is as intriguing as it is demanding, and finding time to spend with one’s family and just living is a constant challenge. I have benefited from working long hours and at home, but I miss time with my wife and kids, and simply enjoying life.

The rigours and pressures of research are innumerable, come from all angles, and are relentless and unforgiving; I cannot remember when I had a real holiday. Keeping up the motivation with such a punishing and unforgiving profession is difficult and the biggest hurdle. My advise, find good mentors where ever they turn up!

How long before your work impacts patient care?

My team and I have started to test compounds that are showing great promise to translate to the bedside. While no researcher could offer a finite time as to when our efforts at the bench would impact on patient care, we always hope it will be as soon as possible.

Who has inspired you and why?

There have been three great motivators in my life, all three my PhD supervisors.

1. Prof Richard Ruffin who is expert at giving the right advise at the right time, and despite his outstanding achievements is one of the most down to Earth people I had the pleasure of knowing.

2. Dr Peter Zalewski who endured me during my PhD with style and grace as my primary supervisor… a hero and a truly fine person.

3. Ms Susan Lester who was my white knight when my PhD was bleak, and who is one of my best friends. She is both the wisest and most lovely person I will likely ever meet. I hold these three equally with the highest regard, and I can never repay them.

If you could only keep three possessions,what would they be?

That’s easy for a minimalist (I think all researchers are minimalists due to financial restrictions!). I would keep three photos featuring my beautiful wife Patricia, and my gorgeous kids Ethan, Kaden, Jenae and Ronan.

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