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Centenary Institute - Medical Research
Centenary Institute - Medical Research

Enzyme may be reason why older people and men are more susceptible to COVID-19

A team of Australian researchers, including from the Centenary Institute, has shown in a new study that older people and men tend to have higher levels of the enzyme ACE2 on the cells of their lower lungs–and that this may be the reason for their increased risk from COVID-19.

“The ACE2 enzyme is the entry receptor for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The spike of the virus binds to ACE2 on the surface of the cell which is a crucial step to the cell being infected,” said Professor Phil Hansbro, Director of the Centenary UTS Centre for Inflammation and co-author on the study.

“We found increased ACE2 expression occurring in older people and males which may explain their higher risk profiles for COVID-19,” he said.

“We also discovered lower ACE2 levels in people with asthma which may indicate why this population group appear to suffer less from severe coronavirus complications.”

The study was led by Professor Peter Wark from the Hunter Medical Research Institute and the University of Newcastle and was published in the journal ‘Respirology’.

Research paper: ACE2 expression is elevated in airway epithelial cells from older and male healthy individuals but reduced in asthma.

Gut microbiome link to deadly lung disease

Research led by the Centenary Institute, the University of Technology Sydney and the University of Queensland has shown for the first time a link between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an often fatal lung condition, and the gut microbiome.

The findings, published in the high impact science journal ‘Nature Communications’, suggest that the gut may be helpful in diagnosing COPD and may also be a potential source of new therapeutic targets to help treat the chronic respiratory disorder.

“It’s already known that the lung microbiome is a contributing factor in COPD,” said Professor Phil Hansbro (pictured), senior author of the study and Director of the Centenary UTS Centre for Inflammation.

“We wanted to see if the gut environment was also somehow involved–to determine whether the gut could act as a reliable indicator of COPD or if it was connected in some way to the development of the disease.”

In the study, the researchers compared the microbiome and metabolite profiles of stool samples from COPD patients with healthy individuals. Revealed were significant differences between the two groups.

COPD patients exhibited increased levels of the bacteria Streptococcus and Lachnospiraceae in their stool samples. Also identified in individuals with COPD was a unique metabolite signature–formed by the chemical by-products of the metabolic process.

“Our research indicates that the gut of COPD patients is notably different from healthy individuals,” said first author on the paper Dr Kate Bowerman, University of Queensland.

“This suggests that stool sampling and analysis could be used to non-invasively diagnose and monitor for COPD,” she said.

The study’s researchers believe that the altered gut microbiome found in COPD patients could also support the gut as a potential target for new treatments.

“The ‘gut-lung axis’ describes the common immune system of the lung and gastrointestinal tract. This means that activity in the gut can impact activity in the lung. Our COPD findings suggest that the gut microbiome should now also be considered when looking for new therapeutic targets to help treat lung disease,” said Professor Hansbro.

COPD, a life threatening inflammatory disorder of the lungs, is the third most common cause of death globally. More than 3 million lives are lost every year to COPD.

Researchers involved in the study were affiliated with The University of Queensland, Hunter Medical Research Institute, University of Newcastle, The Prince Charles Hospital, Centenary Institute and University of Technology Sydney.

Publication: Disease-associated gut microbiome and metabolome changes in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Read more about our COPD related medical research here.

New treatment hope for asthma and COPD

An international study led by the University of Glasgow, including collaborators from the Centenary Institute, has identified a new class of drugs that could pave the way to a new treatment for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The breakthrough findings, published in the journal ‘Science Translational Medicine’, found that the drugs were able to reverse the symptoms of asthma in animal models.

Researchers also found that the same drugs, when applied to lung samples obtained from human donors, showed effects similar to those seen in the animal models.

Scientists believe that these combined findings offer new hope that these drugs could provide new medicines for human inflammatory lung disease.

The new approach is centred on the activation of a protein that, up until now has been known to respond to good fats contained in our diet. The protein, called free fatty acid receptor 4 (FFA4), is found in the gut and pancreas where it is activated by good dietary fats including the fish oil omega 3. Once activated FFA4 is known to help control levels of glucose in the blood.

Surprisingly the research team found FFA4 to be present in the human lung.

By designing a new class of drugs that activate FFA4 in the lung, the researchers found that the muscle that surrounds the airways relaxes allowing more air to enter the lung. They also found that activators of FFA4 reduced inflammation caused by exposure of mice to pollution, cigarette smoke and allergens like house dust mite that cause asthma.

In this way the researchers have established that activating FFA4 can reverse the key hallmarks of inflammatory lung disease heralding the prospect of new drugs for the treatment of lung disease.

“The study was a truly collaborative effort with some of the experimental work done here in Australia, utilising our world-class facilities, said Professor Phil Hansbro, co-author on the published study and Director of the Centenary UTS Centre for Inflammation.

“I’m optimistic that this breakthrough could lead to life-changing treatments for sufferers of asthma and COPD, both of which can be devastating and deadly diseases,” he said.

Photo (L to R): Publication co-authors from the Centenary Institute, Dr Richard Kim, Professor Phil Hansbro, Dr Chantal Donovan.

The full media release can be found here.

The research publication can be found here.

Impact of bushfire smoke on health to be studied

Understanding the long-term health impacts of bushfire smoke will be the focus of a new study being undertaken at the Centenary Institute and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

The study, funded by the Medical Research Future Fund’s (MRFF) Bushfire Impact Research grants program will seek to better understand the physiological impacts of prolonged bushfire smoke exposure, to improve health outcomes for Australians.

Professor Phil Hansbro, Deputy Director at the Centenary Institute as well as Director of the Centenary UTS Centre for Inflammation was the successful recipient of the grant and will be leading a team of specialist respiratory disease researchers and clinicians on the project.

“The true extent of bushfire smoke on people is still largely unknown,” said Professor Hansbro. “We just don’t know the full impact on people resulting from prolonged smoke inhalation or if short term effects resolve after the exposure ends. There is a real knowledge gap as to what level of smoke exposure is likely ok and what level may lead to adverse health effects, particularly for the more vulnerable in our society.”

For this study, the research team will explore the short and prolonged physiological effects of bushfire smoke using mouse models and primary human cells and tissues. Assessed will be how bushfire smoke affects the airways, lungs and other organs and what the long-term consequences of this exposure could be.

Potential smoke impact on healthy individuals and those with common pre-existing respiratory disease such as asthma, emphysema and lung cancer will also be explored. “Ideally from our study, we’ll be able to help define safe levels of bushfire smoke exposure across all of these population groups,” said Professor Hansbro.

The researchers will then use their findings to evaluate new prevention strategies and treatment measures. This will include the appraisal of anti-inflammatory drugs already in pre-clinical development that can be taken to help mitigate the effects of excessive bushfire smoke inhalation. The aim is to implement the study findings into practice, as quickly as is practically possible.

Professor Hansbro is grateful for the opportunity provided by the federal government.

“Bushfires and smoke are a constant feature of the Australian environment and will continue to impact many of us, whether in the bush, towns or larger cities. Our research will lead to improved knowledge in this critical area ultimately leading to improved health and wellbeing outcomes for many Australians,” he said.

More information on the Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund and its funding of research into the health effects of bushfires can be found online.

Read the full media release here.

Respiratory research leader elected as Fellow

Centenary Institute Deputy Director and Director of the Centenary UTS Centre for Inflammation, Professor Phil Hansbro has been elected as a Fellow of the European Respiratory Society (ERS).

The Fellow of ERS award recognises excellence in contributions to research, education and clinical leadership in respiratory medicine.

“The European Respiratory Society is one of the leading respiratory health organisation’s globally and I’m extremely proud to have been recognised with this honour,” said Professor Hansbro.

“I look forward to acting as an ERS ambassador and providing my input as a Fellow in support of the Society’s ongoing mission to promote lung health in order to alleviate suffering from disease,” he said.

Professor Hansbro will be formally introduced as a Fellow at the virtual ERS International Congress, taking place in September, 2020.

Further information on the award can be found here.

Centenary Institute research boost with NHMRC Investigator Grants

Professor Philip Hansbro, Deputy Director at the Centenary Institute and Professor John Rasko AO, Head of the Centenary Institute’s Gene and Stem Cell Therapy Program have both been awarded prestigious National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Investigator Grants. The Investigator Grants scheme is one of the NHMRC’s new flagship funding arrangements supporting outstanding health and medical researchers.

Professor Philip Hansbro’s funding will support further research into the development of new preventions and treatments for chronic respiratory diseases.

“Respiratory diseases are among the leading causes of all deaths world-wide,” says Professor Hansbro.

“This grant will fund our research into developing a comprehensive ‘molecular map’ for specific respiratory diseases including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), lung cancer and severe asthma. This will increase our knowledge of how these diseases develop and progress, providing us with new opportunities to attempt treatments and cures.”

Professor John Rasko AO, Head of the Centenary Institute’s Gene and Stem Cell Therapy Program and Head of Department, Cell & Molecular Therapies at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital will receive funding for his research focused on driving clinical cell and gene therapy in Australia.

“Harnessing the power of our body’s own cells and genetic therapies, we are witnessing a medical revolution in curing serious diseases including hereditary bleeding and anaemia as well as specific forms of cancer. This new federal funding will facilitate our internationally acclaimed basic and clinical research Program designed to improve the health of Australians”, says Professor Rasko.

Read the full media release here.