Attracting academics from further afield as well as the surrounding areas, the School of Pharmacy at Queen’s University Belfast is renowned as a world leader in research. NIHR gets to know a few of the minds and motivations behind some of its innovative ongoing research projects – and how the work is driving improvements to clinical practice and patient care.

Professor Michael Tunney

Can you tell us about your research?

My research is primarily focused on improving the detection and treatment of infection in patients with a range of chronic respiratory diseases. This research is part of an ongoing clinical collaboration with colleagues in the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences at Queen’s, particularly Professor Stuart Elborn and Dr Damian Downey. Initial work focused on people with cystic fibrosis and we determined, using a range of traditional culture and molecular techniques, that many different bacterial species colonised the airways. Further studies focused on people with bronchiectasis and COPD. We are now determining how all these different bacterial species which make-up the airway microbiome interact in health and disease. With a focus on people with cystic fibrosis, we are also determining how the airway microbiome changes with age, disease progression, flare-ups of infection and in response to both antibiotic treatment and recently developed highly effective modulator therapy.

We are currently working with Randox Laboratories Ltd to develop a molecular-based chronic infection array that will detect and identify which bacteria are present in samples from the airways of people with chronic infection within three-to-four hours, rather than the current two-to-three-day time required with conventional culture-based methods. We are also working with Randox on a molecular point-of-care test which will detect bacteria causing urinary tract infection direct from urine within a similar timeframe. This test will ensure that antibiotic treatment will be targeted more effectively reducing the likelihood of inappropriate antibiotics being prescribed, or of patients being prescribed antibiotics when they are not required.

As part of a Europe-wide, Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI)-funded project, led by Queen’s, we have been working with industrial partners and researchers from 20 organisations in eight European countries to develop new drugs for the treatment of lung infection in people with cystic fibrosis and bronchiectasis. We have also been investigating whether we can use molecular methods, such as changes in the microbiome, to predict outcomes in clinical trials.

What are you hoping to achieve through the work?

From the perspective of the IMI project, the focus is to bring new drug treatments to the market to improve the lives of people with cystic fibrosis and bronchiectasis. Better understanding of the airway microbiome in people with chronic respiratory disease has the potential to track and predict disease progression in individual patients and guide antibiotic treatment. Similarly, we hope that the rapid diagnostic tests we are developing will enable prompt detection of infection, more timely and targeted prescription of antibiotics and better outcomes for patients.

How many people are working on the research project?

Within our group, there are 15 researchers in total, but the nature of this research is highly collaborative and we are working with colleagues across multiple different research institutions and industry.

Why did you choose the School of Pharmacy at Queen’s?

I completed my undergraduate Pharmacy degree and PhD in the School of Pharmacy and was therefore aware of the vibrant research environment in the School. The School has a global reputation for cutting-edge research which contributes to the needs of society and is a great place to work. The School also has excellent collaborative links with clinical colleagues in Northern Ireland which facilitates access to clinical samples and patient data which is vital for ongoing research. Such access is not available everywhere. The School is also well-led, well-managed, and has numerous opportunities for career development.

Dr Nicola Irwin

What is your research centring on?

My research is centred on the development of innovative healthcare technologies to combat the global health priority of medical device-associated infections and related problems of tissue damage and ease-of-use. Hospital-acquired infections affect approximately one-in-10 patients admitted to UK hospitals and cost the NHS in excess of £1 billion per annum. New strategies for prevention are therefore urgently needed.

My work on the development of infection-resistant catheter coating technologies and the identification of efficacious alternatives to antibiotics to enable the timely prevention of hospital-acquired infections is informed by investigation of the ways in which bacteria attach to surfaces. We are also working with crystal engineers at the University of Houston to investigate how crystals form in the urine and are using that knowledge to develop strategies to prevent catheter blockages, which are experienced on a recurrent basis by approximately 50 per cent of all catheterised patients. The outcomes of this work are anticipated to not only address the global hospital-acquired infection crisis, but also antimicrobial resistance, which is now recognised as one of the most serious global threats to human health.

What were the motivations behind your decision to conduct your research at Queen’s?

I studied Pharmacy at the School of Pharmacy at Queen’s and I loved my experience – never forgetting the support of the staff and the community feel that was encouraged. I first got involved in this research during my undergraduate degree, where my final year project was focussed on the development of infection-responsive coatings for urinary catheters, so it has been a real privilege to be able to pursue research in this area. Queen’s has been the best place for me to conduct further research and the support and opportunities within this world-leading School have been invaluable.

How many people are involved in your research?

I lead a growing research team of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. I work closely with other academics within the School, including Professor Colin McCoy, and have collaborators based in the US, Jordan, China and the EU. In addition to other academics, I conduct much of this research with national and international industrial and healthcare organisations including Eakin R&D, and clinicians to ensure my work addresses high priority clinical challenges.

What are your research-related aspirations?

My ultimate goal is to impact healthcare and society at a global scale through translation of my connected research from the laboratory to the clinic. A significant amount of my research is focused on urinary catheters and I want to address the stigma commonly associated with catheterisation.

I am a member of the organising committee for ‘Incontinence: The Engineering Challenge Conference’ which brings together researchers, patients, industry and clinicians biannually to encourage dialogue about these issues and ultimately help to develop effective solutions to address the real challenges faced by patients on a daily basis.

Dr Timofey Skvortsov

What have you been working on?

My research is focused on bacteriophages which – although discovered about 100 years ago – haven’t really got much attention until very recently because we’re now facing an antimicrobial resistance crisis, and if we don’t do anything about it, then antimicrobial-resistant infections could replace cancer as the major cause of all deaths. Bacterial viruses are currently considered the best alternative we have for antibiotics.

My other areas of interest include metagenomics and metatranscriptomics of complex microbial communities, investigation of phage-mediated horizontal gene transfer of antimicrobial resistance and virulence determinants, and metagenomic discovery and directed evolution of novel biocatalysts for pharmaceutical biotechnology.

At the moment my research team is very small because I just started as a lecturer last year. We’re still increasing the number, but currently I have one PhD student and three final year students.

How have you found working at the School of Pharmacy at Queen’s?

Queen’s has a very convenient location, a great team of researchers, and very strong research going on. There is a strong microbiology team, a strong team of biochemists and pharmacists, and everybody is connected and supported.

What is the intended global impact of your project?

I hope to develop a completely new antibacterial agent. I know that it’s a very big dream, but hopefully we will be able to develop some products that can be marketed and used to treat bacterial infections.