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Taking clinical testing out of the lab and into the field

Every one of our cells contains a copy of our genome; a complex set of instructions for the entire human body. Each cell, however, is only designed to carry out one specific function – nerve cells produce nerves, muscle cells produce muscles and so on. When errors disrupt this fundamental rule, things start going wrong and if patients are being treated with genetic drugs, there is a risk of developing cancer. In the past five years, several treatments for inherited diseases have been approved for use, but they usually target multiple cells, not just those relevant to certain diseases. Dr Sterghios Moschos and his team have focused on the development of genetic drugs that only target cells which cause the disease, while also establishing a pioneering clinical testing system for the deadly Ebola virus.

Dr Moschos is Associate Professor at the Department of Applied Sciences and leads research on reliably detecting and correcting disease-causing errors in the genome. He and his team design new ways to fix these genetic faults, developing tools for ensuring the safety of drugs, and identifying patients that will benefit from personalised medicine.

His lab uses a variety of methods to deliver gene drugs into specific cells, including the cloning of genes – from pathogens that exploit how our body works, to bacteria that are safe to work with. Researchers also analyse obscure materials that may be useful in the arena of gene therapy, such as snake venom. To achieve wider goals the team collaborate with scientists at pharmaceutical corporations, biotechnology companies and other universities throughout the world. Several projects to develop effective medicines have resulted in clinical trials and even attained market status.  

Dr Moschos recently formed a pioneering line-up comprised of the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, Public Health England, two UK biotechs – BioGene Ltd and Fluorogenics Ltd – and the Kwame-Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, in Ghana.

The aim was to establish a way of lifting a clinical genetic test out of the diagnostic laboratory and unrolling it into the field. In this case, detecting the genome of the Ebola virus, not in the clean setting of a hospital, but rural Africa. The absence of such technology had significantly contributed to the explosive Ebola outbreak in 2014, but the team’s idea for a test has had a very rapid impact, quickly going from concept to fully functioning machine, suitable for the unforgiving African terrain, in only 12 months.

The ground-breaking Ebola virus diagnostic system has now been validated for ten other high-risk viral diseases that present a risk to humanity, and the UK Government may use it for mass-screening, at home and abroad, in the event of future epidemics. Meanwhile, parallel work on analysing breath has generated two patents which could become tools for helping patients with conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma.

The team are now working with BioGene and the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to make the system work for the diagnosis of viral hepatitis and HIV in places like prisons, potentially detecting and eliminating all viral hepatitis C from the UK by 2030.

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