Since 2019, we have worked in partnership with the research office to offer research fellowships of up to £50,000 to non-medical professionals in our hospitals. These grants help our researchers develop their skills and maintain Royal Brompton & Harefield hospitals’ status as world leaders in heart and lung care.

The three grant awardees selected this year by a panel of experts and advisors are: Andreia Pinto, who will be researching how Covid-19 infects cells; Karina Lopes, who aims to improve diagnosis of diseased arteries in foetuses and Dr Carmel Stock, who wants to better predict the likelihood a patient with Scleroderma will go on to develop interstitial lung disease.

Dr Stock said: “I am really excited about the prospects of this project and am really looking forward to starting work on it.” We got in touch to learn more about her research proposal.

How long have you been at Royal Brompton Hospital?

I have been working with the interstitial lung disease (ILD) unit at Royal Brompton Hospital for just over 11 years. 

What led you to research Scleroderma and interstitial lung disease?

During my PhD in rheumatology at UCL, I had a placement at the Royal Free Hospital working on Scleroderma with a group who work closely with the ILD unit here at Royal Brompton. When I completed my PhD, an opportunity came up to work with the ILD unit here and I was really thrilled to be able to work at such a prestigious institution and with a world-renowned group.

Tell us more about Scleroderma and the link with interstitial lung disease? How do the two conditions affect patients? What symptoms do they have?

Scleroderma (SSc) is an autoimmune disease characterised by thickening of the skin, often starting with circulation problems in the fingers and toes. Some patients also develop fibrosis (scarring) of their internal organs, including lungs, heart, kidneys, and gut.

Interstitial lung disease (ILD; or lung fibrosis - stiffening of the lungs by scar tissue) occurs in most scleroderma patients. Patients experience shortness of breath, fatigue, and a non-productive cough. While some have a stable disease that remains mild, at least a third of patients with SSc develop more severe lung disease, which worsens over time as lung scarring increases and breathlessness worsens. ILD is the leading cause of death in patients with SSc. 

What do you hope to achieve with this grant?

It is important to predict which patients with SSc are more likely to develop ILD before it becomes severe and thus know which patients could be helped by early treatment.

Patients with SSc are known to have certain molecules in their blood called autoantibodies, some of which are linked to fibrosis of different internal organs. However, for more than half of patients we do not know the exact type of autoantibody.

We want to look for 75 different autoantibodies in the blood of patients with SSc to see if any are found more often in patients with lung disease. In patients with ILD, we also want to know if any autoantibodies are linked to a more severe or faster progression of the disease.

Finding auto-antibodies linked to aspects of SSc will allow us to give improved information to patients about how their disease is likely to develop, and to give earlier treatment to patients who will go on to develop severe lung disease. This will help them live longer and with milder symptoms.

How will your research benefit patients?

ILD is present in most patients with SSc, although its behaviour over time varies considerably between individual patients. When patients living with SSc are told they have lung fibrosis, they and their physicians face uncertainty about how the lung disease will behave.

The inability to predict disease behaviour impacts disease management decisions and the choice of drug therapy. It also limits the ability of patients to plan, delays the institution of quality of life interventions, and increases healthcare costs.

The goal of this research is to reduce uncertainty, resulting in improved patient psychological well-being, the minimisation of toxicity from unnecessary treatment in patients with stable disease, and when needed, the initiation of treatment as early as possible.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Knowing that the work I do will have a direct, positive impact on patient care in the future.

My research will enable doctors to give patients more accurate information on how their lung disease is likely to develop. Doctors will be able to identify patients who will benefit most from early treatment, thereby reducing their symptoms and enabling them to live longer, healthier lives.

One of my favourite parts of my job is being able to talk to patients directly about the research studies we are conducting. Being able to talk about exactly what we plan to do with their blood samples, and how this will benefit patients in the future, means patients know how their participation is helping us to better understand and treat this disease. 

How do you feel about receiving this grant?

I am absolutely delighted and honoured to have been selected to receive such a prestigious grant. Not only will it enable me to carry out this really exciting research, but it will also help me advance my career into becoming an independent researcher in SSc-ILD.

It is through the generosity of our donors and supporters that we can fund essential research to not only improve outcomes for patients in our hospitals, but also inform the treatment of patients with lung disease everywhere. Play your part in our mission to treat and beat lung disease.

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