QUB scientist forges new frontiers in chronic airways disease

3 Feb 2017

Dr Lorraine Martin, researcher at Queen’s University Belfast

Dr Lorraine Martin combines her entrepreneurial and scientific skills to understand more about the molecular mechanisms behind chronic airways disease. She spoke to Claire O’Connell.

To keep everything running smoothly, our bodies have complex systems of checks and balances between molecules. And when those balances start to run out of sync, it can be a sign (or perhaps even a cause) of problems brewing.

Could keeping an eye on specific biochemical molecules help? Belfast-based company ProAxsis is developing new technology to measure powerful protein-degrading enzymes called proteases, which flare up when tissue is inflamed or damaged.

Early warning

The hope is to be able to easily monitor proteases in people with chronic lung conditions, such as cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and bronchiectasis, which will quickly identify when they may need more medical support. 

“We know that levels of certain proteases go up in the lungs of people with airways disease a couple of weeks before they may feel unwell enough themselves to go to hospital,” explained ProAxsis co-founder Dr Lorraine Martin, a Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) researcher who is an expert in the field.

“So, one of our aims is to have point-of-care testing for people to enable routine monitoring. If the test signals that the proteases are going up and if they get support early, then the hope is they would not only avoid the need to go hospital, but, importantly, it would prevent episodes of acute damage to the lung.”

Entrepreneurial flair

The science behind ProAxsis is based on research at QUB by Martin and her colleague Prof Brian Walker. “We got initial support through a Proof of Concept award from Invest NI back in 2008, then it became apparent over time that we should spin out a company ourselves,” recalled Martin, who is a senior lecturer in molecular pharmaceutics within QUB’s School of Pharmacy.

A major step towards that goal was when Martin won at the NISP Connect £25k Awards in 2013 (now known as Invent). She became founding CEO of ProAxsis and worked in that position for two years, during which time ProAxsis brought its first product to market – a protease-testing kit for labs – and developed a pipeline of other protease biomarker assays using their patented ProteaseTag technology.

ProAxsis built up its team and in October 2015, Dr David Ribeiro was appointed full-time commercial CEO. Martin, whose work was recognised with a 2016 QUB Vice-Challencellor’s Prize, is a director of the company and now has the opportunity to focus attention back on her academic programmes to further develop the science of proteases in chronic lung conditions.

Lung research

Martin’s discoveries could pave the way for the identification of new treatment targets and therapeutics in the future.

She is particularly excited about a recently announced EU-funded Interreg VA (SEUPB) project called ‘BREATH’, which will see her group at QUB work with Dundalk Institute of Technology and the University of the West of Scotland on a cross-border collaboration. The focus is on the lung condition COPD, where proteases play an important role in remodelling and destruction of lung tissue over time.

“BREATH will train a cohort of 16 PhD students, along with five postdoctoral researchers and a clinical fellow, and will develop significant research capacity in the area of COPD in the regions,” she said.

“This concerted effort by the three research teams working together will help us to better understand the molecular mechanisms involved in this condition and will significantly contribute to new developments in the field.” 

Rewards of STEM 

The Ballymena native has wise advice for school students who are choosing their subjects or mulling over CAO or UCAS forms. “Core STEM subjects offer a lot of flexibility and enable the development of important core skills even beyond the subject itself, like analysis and planning,” she said.

“Also, careers in science are not restricted to the ‘bench’ where you are doing experiments. There are big opportunities for those motivated in entrepreneurism and business development, project management and teaching, to name a few areas.”

For Martin herself, combining her scientific and entrepreneurial skills, and interacting with patient advocacy groups has been a positive experience. “I feel as if I am doing something useful,” she said.

“The generation of new knowledge, and the development of novel therapeutics and technology that could potentially help people, is very rewarding.”

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication