We spoke to Dr Richard Hewitt, who has received funding to research the early signs of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis

Dr Richard Hewitt, a respiratory consultant specialising in interstitial lung disease at Royal Brompton Hospital, is the first fellow to receive funding from the Sir Robert Finch Fellowship. The funding will further his research into idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). 

IPF is a type of interstitial lung disease (ILD) that causes progressive scarring in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Around 6,000 new cases of IPF are diagnosed in the UK each year and as it is a disease that is intrinsically linked with aging, the burden of this disease is likely to increase as the population ages. With an average survival time of between 3 - 5 years, it carries a poorer prognosis than many forms of cancer and is responsible for approximately 1% of all UK deaths.

During his PhD research at Imperial College London, Richard found abnormalities in the immune cells in the airways of patients with newly diagnosed IPF.

"IPF has an insidious onset, and typically there are delays to diagnosis as the symptoms can be attributed to other causes. Whilst there are anti-fibrotic drugs now available to slow down the scarring process, they do not stop or reverse fibrosis so it remains incurable. If we can identify early abnormalities in the immune cells lining the airways that are indicative of IPF, we might then be able to treat the disease at an earlier stage."

Richard hopes his research may eventually lead to a novel diagnostic test that can identify IPF and progressive pulmonary fibrosis early, so that treatment can be started at an earlier stage leading to improvements in life expectancy. 

Ring-fenced time ensures that healthcare professionals can explore innovative solutions to medical challenges, develop new treatments, and ultimately improve patient outcomes. Funding schemes such as the Sir Robert Finch Fellowship provide vital support to healthcare professionals to advance research projects outside of clinical duties.

Working closely with King’s College London, where he’ll be setting up a research group, Richard aims to study people who have early changes on CT scanning known as interstitial lung abnormalities (ILA), which have the potential to develop into pulmonary fibrosis. These CT changes are incidentally detected in some people taking part in the NHS targeted lung health check (TLHC) programme which was developed to diagnose lung cancer early. 

Richard is grateful to the Sir Robert Finch Fellowship. He said, "I'm hugely grateful to the charity and to Sir Robert Finch’s family who have committed to support this research. I hope to be able to share the findings as I progress over the next few years." 

This fellowship is just one of the many ways that Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospitals Charity is helping to create the future of care for people with heart and lung disease by funding innovative research. To find out more about our work visit our website.