Launceston doctor studying idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a fatal lung disease

RESEARCHER: Dr Sukhwinder Sohal will continue his research into idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis thanks to a Clifford Craig Foundation grant. Picture: Phillip Biggs
RESEARCHER: Dr Sukhwinder Sohal will continue his research into idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis thanks to a Clifford Craig Foundation grant. Picture: Phillip Biggs

With Launceston now the national centre for lung pathology assessments in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a local researcher is collecting data from around Australia to better understand the fatal disease.

University of Tasmania’s respiratory immunopathology research group head Dr Sukhwinder Sohal is using a Clifford Craig Foundation grant to study the underlying mechanisms of IPF, which could help with discovering the disease earlier, and eventually lead to better treatment.

IPF is a chronic disease that appears as scarring on the lungs, and mainly occurs in middle aged and elderly people.

“The problem with this disease is the lung gets hugely scarred and then, within three years, the whole lung gets damaged and eventually leads to death of the patient,” Dr Sohal said. “So once this disease is picked up, the progression of the disease is really, really fast.”

Dr Sohal was already researching chronic lung diseases under previous Clifford Craig grants, which was what led to the national recognition.

“I’m very thankful to the foundation and respiratory clinicians at Launceston General Hospital for supporting such an important initiative. Just recently, Launceston has been declared as the national centre for looking at the pathological changes in this disease.”

It’s an Australia-wide project and the Launceston researchers are being sent clinical samples from other states to study. “We have coordinators in each state, including Tasmania, and this is supported by the Lung Foundation Australia and National Health and Medical Research Council.

“We have an Australian IPF registry, in which all these patients are registered. We’ve now got close to 7000 patients registered in this study. It is the world’s biggest registry looking at these patients, so we are leading at an international level.”

With the 2018 grant, Dr Sohal will look at what mechanisms in the lungs get activated early on in people with IPF. “So we’re trying to see if we can do a simple test using blood to pick up the disease early. Then, if somebody’s at a high risk of this disease, we can manage them early on, and if somebody’s picked up the disease, how we can tailor personalised medicine.

“The other part, what we’re trying to look at, is what are the mechanisms which are involved in this nasty disease? What gets triggered? What gets switched on? Because the word idiopathic means we don’t know what’s causing it.”

Dr Sohal said there could be a number of environmental factors involved in the development of IPF. “It could be smoking-related, pesticides, stuff coming from coal mines, from other mines - it could be anything really.”