January 2013

Prof Paul McLoughlin Awarded More Than €1.3 Million in SFI Funding

Tue, 29 January 13 09:00

Paul McLoughlin, Professor of Physiology at UCD School of Medicine and Medical Science, and Fellow of the UCD Conway Institute of Biomolecular and Biomedical Research, has been awarded more than €1.3 million in research funding by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

The award, announced on 25th January 2013, will fund research into the role of the bone morphogenetic antagonist gremlin in the pathogenesis of chronic hypoxic lung disease.

Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton TD and the Minister for Research and Innovation, Sean Sherlock TD, announced funding, totalling €60million, dedicated to 85 pioneering research initiatives. Administered via Science Foundation Ireland’s (SFI) Investigator Programme, the 85 research projects will directly support 250 researchers through to 2018.

The focus of Professor McLoughlin’s research is on potential treatments for life-threatening complications associated with chronic obstructive lung diseases like emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Chronic obstructive lung diseases make it hard to empty air out of the lungs, are most commonly caused by smoking and affect over 100,000 people in Ireland.

In February 2012, Professor McLoughlin was first author on a study published in Circulation, which found that it may be possible to target and regulate a protein that contributes to pulmonary hypertension - high blood pressure in the arteries of the lung – a disabling and potentially fatal complication for patients suffering from chronic obstructive lung disease.

Diseases such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis and fibrosis of the lungs cause abnormally low levels of oxygen in the lung. When the lung is starved of oxygen, blood pressure in the arteries of the lung increases which damages blood vessels and makes it more difficult for the heart to pump blood, leading in many cases to heart failure and premature death.

While investigating the factors that contribute to high blood pressure in the arteries, UCD scientists previously found that when oxygen levels in the lung are reduced, the body produces elevated quantities of a protein called gremlin – suggesting a link between elevated levels of gremlin and pulmonary hypertension.

Further investigations showed that mice whose genes had been mutated to reduce gremlin were protected against pulmonary hypertension, even when in a low oxygen environment similar to that found in lung disease. The heart was also protected and the damage to blood vessels in the lung was less severe. 

Professor McLoughlin’s research showed that gremlin was elevated in the lungs of patients with pulmonary hypertension confirming a key role for the protein in damaging the blood vessels of the lung. 

Speaking after the SFI grant award, Professor McLoughlin said:

Our research findings to date suggest the potential for additional novel treatments of patients by designing drugs that block the actions of gremlin in the lung. It is estimated that by 2020, chronic obstructive lung disease will be the third most common cause of death worldwide; this grant will allow us to develop our research and move forward our objective of designing new treatments for this debilitating, potentially fatal illness and other similar lung disease characterised by low oxygen.

About chronic obstructive lung diseases

Chronic obstructive lung diseases make it hard to empty air out of the lungs. This is because the airways get smaller leading to airflow obstruction. Chronic lung diseases include chronic bronchitis, emphysema or a combination of both conditions. Symptoms of chronic lung disease include shortness of breath, cough and sputum (phlegm) production. It is estimated that over 100,000 people suffer from the disease in Ireland.

Most people with chronic lung diseases are smokers or have smoked in the past and are over 35. Chronic lung disease can also be caused by working or living for many years in an environment where there is exposure to smoke, dust or other fumes.

Chronic bronchitis is caused by inflammation and increased mucus (phlegm) in the breathing tubes (airways). Because of the swelling and extra mucus the inside of the breathing tubes become smaller causing obstruction in airflow.

Emphysema is caused by damage to the air sacs (alveoli) of the lung. Normally there are more than 300 million air sacs in the lungs. If the walls of the air sacs are damaged they lose their elasticity and trap air. This causes extra air to remain in the lungs after you breathe out. The extra effort required to breathe results in shortness of breath.

Source: Irish Thoracic Society (http://www.irishthoracicsociety.com/)

About Professor Paul McLoughlin

Paul McLoughlin is a Professor of Physiology at UCD School of Medicine and Medical Science, and a Fellow of the UCD Conway Institute of Biomolecular and Biomedical Research. Professor McLoughlin’s research group is focused on the exploration and understanding of key mechanisms in the development and progression of lung diseases.

This work is supported with funding from the HRB, SFI, St Vincent’s Anaesthesia Foundation and UCD Foundation. These diseases include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, cystic fibrosis, adult respiratory distress syndrome and occupational lung diseases and are amongst the most common (and increasing) causes of death and disability worldwide.