Travel story: Dr Martin Donnelley

Dr Martin Donnelley from the Robinson Research Institute’s Cystic Fibrosis Research Group attended the North American Cystic Fibrosis Conference in Florida, USA in October 2016.

Martin presented his research on Direct x-ray measurement of airway surface health in animal models: an update on the state-of-the-art.

This is what Martin had to say about his experience:

What was a highlight of the conference?

My personal highlight was seeing the huge number of people that are dedicated to making the lives of people with CF better. In terms of the science, the highlight was seeing the push by the CFF towards a cure for CF, and that gene modification and gene addition (i.e. gene therapy) are the way they envisage this happening. This fits perfectly with the CFARG goals, and the goals of Cure4CF.

Did you meet any researchers or collaborators of significance? Why are they important to your work?

I met a range of people at the NACFC conference:

  • Susan Birket, who runs the CF rat colony at the University of Birmingham at Alabama. This meeting was particularly useful as our group is currently establishing a CF rat colony (produced by CRISPR at Monash University) housed at UofA LAS. Susan is happy to provide SOP detailing colony maintenance, diet, etc, which will be very valuable for our group.
  • James Yankaskas, Professor of Medicine at UNC, where he is Associate Chair of the Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Medicine Division, and Medical Director of the Medical ICU and the Medical Progressive Care Unit. James is a world renowned leader in the field of pulmonary medicine.
  • Paul McCray, Gene therapy expert at University of Iowa. His group has recently published studies about CFTR gene delivery to CF pigs, and is very similar to our research.
  • Scott Randall: Expert in the fields of CF and respiratory airway stem cells.
  • Katherine Tuggle: Originally involved in the development of the CF rat, but now working for the CFF. She is a good contact at the CFF for grants.
  • Australia CF experts including Scott Bell, Phil Robinson and Nettie Burke

Did you visit any other labs or research facilities? How these visits will be useful to your work and/or career development?

I spent two days at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, prior to the NACFC. During that time I had meetings with:

  • John Olsen, a Retired Professor who worked on gene therapy for CF, in particular the use of HA pseudotyped lentiviral vectors. This meeting was particularly useful as I have just received funding from Channel 7 CRF to compare the effectiveness of John’s vector with our group’s current vector to determine which is more efficient.
  • Brian Button, a CF mucus expert. We’re currently using Brian’s artificial mucus in some of our synchrotron imaging studies to produce known mucus burden in the airways.
  • Ric Boucher, one of the leading CF researchers, and is the head of the UNC Marsico Lung Institute. I have collaborated with Ric on previous grants and papers, and he has a good overview of all CF research and how my research can progress and fit with that.
  • Rob Tarran: One of David Parson’s original collaborators who knows about CFTR, ASL depth reduction, effects of smoking on airways.
  • Barb Grubb, the expert in non-invasive mucociliary transit assessment using fluorescent tracking particles. Her work is very closely related to my synchrotron MCT assessment studies.
  • Larry Ostrowski: Larry also looks at mucus clearance, and is using air liquid interface cultures with beads to assess clearance. His other interest is PCD a similar disease to CF.
  • David Hill: Mathematical modelling of mucus. David lost me quickly during our conversation (he talks fast and knows a lot about mucus physics), but it was interesting nonetheless.
  • Yueh (Ray) Lee: Ray is a Radiologist (clinical and research), and we discussed tomosynthesis, carbon nanotube x-ray sources, F19 MRI, and automated MCT analysis. Ray showed me around the impressive imaging facilities in the Marsico building.
  • Camille Ehre: Camille studies mucus, and uses B-ENaC mice (the mice we use for many of our CF studies).
  • Alessandra Livraghi-Butrico: Alessandra and I spoke about variability in B-ENaC mouse lung health and our latest work on non-invasively assessing that with our functional CTXV imaging system.
  • Bill Bennett: Bill is from the EPA building at UNC. His area of interest is assessing clearance and he does that using radiolabelled tracers that are inhaled into the lung, with decay measured using a gamma camera.

How will the experience support you and your research going forward?

Traveling to UNC and the NACFC allowed me to develop lots of new contacts, some of which will likely form into collaborations for myself and our group. This was a very valuable experience.

What was the most exciting thing you learned/experienced at the Conference?

There were lots of interesting posters, talks and chats with people. However, the first Plenary was probably one of the most important “non-science” parts. The speakers outlined that the CFF doesn’t want to “Leave anyone behind”. This meant that they are trying to ensure that everyone, regardless of their mutation (especially if it is not a mutation that will never be treatable using a potentiator or corrector), has access to a good therapy. They outlined methods of gene editing (alluding to CRISPR reagents being delivered by gene therapy-like methods) as one of the most promising methods. Clearly being able to deliver CFTR to airway cells as we do is probably the first step along this path, so this fits perfectly with the CFARG and Cure4CF plan, which is great news. The right animal model was also identified as being critical, which fits well with our CF rat development.

What was the most interesting or unexpected moment of your travel?

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed meeting big people in CF and discussing our research with them. It was great to know that we’re on the right track with what we’re doing.

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