Gut instincts lead new direction in COPD research

Monday, 7 June 2021

With the gut now regarded as the ‘second brain of the human body’, University of Newcastle researchers have discovered a new connection between gut health and one of the world’s deadliest diseases.

Saima Firdous Rehman

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the third leading cause of death globally and the fifth leading cause in Australia. Aided by a generous philanthropic donation, our researchers have been investigating how simple, low-cost changes to what we eat might help reverse the impact of this deadly disease. The Edith Ethel Ward Perpetual PhD Scholarship for COPD and Lung Disease was set up following a $250,000 gift from a generous community member to establish an ongoing scholarship for COPD research.

Rising research star Saima Firdous Rehman was the beneficiary of the scholarship in 2020. The support enabled her to study an advanced bioinformatics course: an interdisciplinary field combining computer science, mathematics, physics and biology. Saima has since been using bioinformatics to quickly see what the gut microbiome is doing in COPD patients, shaving years from the study’s timeline.

“Using bioinformatics, we can examine trillions of species of bacteria and get answers much faster than is possible in the lab,” says Saima. “This is important because we need to understand how diet changes affect the microbiome and if this can help treat, cure and prevent disease in millions of people around the world affected by COPD.”

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of progressive lung diseases that include emphysema and chronic bronchitis. There is no cure for COPD and environmental risk factors like workplace exposure to chemicals and fumes, air pollution, dust and smoke from bushfires are increasing all the time.

Thanks to generous support from donors, early career researchers like Saima can improve their skills and discover new strategies to reverse the burden of disease on our health system, giving people a better quality of life and more time with their families.”
Associate Professor Jay Horvat (PhD (Immunology and Microbiology) 2008; Bachelor of Biomedical Science (Honours) 2003)

If you would like to support an area of research which is important to you, contact Brad Holmes on 02 4921 8612 or

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