Grants Awarded to Gut Microbiome, Influenza Research in Australia

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by Steve Bryson, PhD |

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Researchers at the Centenary UTS Centre for Inflammation in Australia have been awarded grants to investigate potential therapeutics for respiratory conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

One of the awards is a $5-million National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Synergy Grant that will investigate methods in which gut microbes, metabolites, and gut immunity in general can be manipulated to treat COPD.

COPD is a chronic inflammatory condition of the lungs, in which the airways become blocked, leading to cough and shortness of breath.

“Most respiratory disease studies focus predominantly on the lung,” Phil Hansbro, PhD, director at Centenary and the project’s chief investigator, said in a press release. “We know, however, that there is microbial and immune crosstalk between the gut and the lungs. Gut diseases induce lung inflammation and are linked to COPD and asthma, and vice versa. New approaches that manipulate gut microbiomes have enormous potential as new therapies for lung diseases.”

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The project will be co-led by Emad El-Omar, MD, at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Lisa Wood, PhD, at the University of Newcastle, and Meg Jardine, PhD, at the University of Sydney.

“Such an ambitious project requires expertise in respiratory disease, gut disease, microbiology, immunology, nutrition and dietetics, clinical studies and trials, engineering, bioinformatics, statistics and multi-omics,” Hansbro said. “We have brought together a top-class team with expertise across a diverse set of research disciplines.”

The first phase of the project will explore the biological links between the gut and the lungs, including microbe, metabolite, and immune response interactions. This research will help identify how microbes living in the gut can be used as a potential therapy for COPD.

“Understanding the interplay between gut and lung health is critical to the development of new and innovative strategies for managing COPD,” Wood said. “This project has the potential to lead to a paradigm shift in how we understand COPD.”

Treatments may include ingesting certain microbes, antibiotics, or special diets to therapeutically modulate immunity and inflammation in the gut, which may in turn influence COPD. Research will focus on assessing the roles of these microbes and the metabolites they produce, and therapeutic candidates that are found to be safe and effective will then advance to clinical trial testing.

“Projects like this will identify multiple potential treatments that need to be rigorously evaluated to determine their effectiveness in improving human health,” said Jardine, director of the University of Sydney’s NHMRC Clinical Trials Centre. “We are excited to apply innovative trial solutions that can handle this complexity and allow us to systematically discover the most effective ways for improving health outcomes.”

Synergy Grants are awarded by the NHMRC to projects looking for answers to essential questions that a single investigator cannot provide.

“This Synergy Grant is a great opportunity to deliver translational benefit to millions of COPD sufferers and demonstrates the emerging power of the microbiome revolution in medicine,” said El-Omar of UNSW’s Microbiome Research Centre.

The second award was a $20,000 seed grant to accelerate the development of a new treatment strategy for COPD patients infected with the influenza virus. The team will be led by principal investigator Kamal Dua, PhD, at Centenary, along with Hansbro, and Keshav Raj Paudel, PhD.

Influenza infection is particularly common and life-threatening to those with COPD, and there is a need for more effective therapies.

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“Influenza exacerbates COPD, increases inflammation and makes it even more difficult to breathe, potentially leading to increased hospitalisations and life-threatening outcomes for patients,” Dua said in another press release.

The funding will support the development of tiny particles — called nanoparticles — to deliver the naturally occurring compound berberine to treat influenza in COPD patients. The award comes from the Respiratory, Sleep, Environmental and Occupational Health Clinical Academic Group of Maridulu Budyari Gumal.

Although berberine has known anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties, it is poorly absorbed when taken orally.

“Formulating berberine into engineered nanoparticles could be a new approach to targeted drug delivery, to increase uptake by infected cells and to reduce the inflammatory effects of influenza,” Dua said.