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Medical student makes huge cystic fibrosis discovery

A medical student using her holidays as a research assistant in a major hospital has made a remarkable breakthrough in the treatment of cystic fibrosis – one which will contribute significantly to improving treatment and extending sufferer’s life expectancy.

Jo Armstead, 21, a medical student in her third year at Newcastle University spent hundreds of hours examining medical data from thirty different countries and discovered that half of adults who suffer from the rare genetic disorder are infected with a common fungus called aspergillus.

Armstead found that over half of the 75,000 patients she studied had both cystic fibrosis and the fungus aspergillus – research which has now been published in a leading journal, the Public Library of Science, and has led to worldwide recognition from leading cystic fibrosis experts.

Aspergillosis is a fungal infection which has a terrible impact on many cystic fibrosis sufferers. The aspergillus fungus which occurs everywhere throughout the world. It feeds on dead animal or plant material and is vitally important to the environment to recycle all kinds of biological materials. The fungus is spread through tiny airborne molecules meaning that people breathe them in all the time. However, human immune systems usually pick up that the spores are foreign and destroy them, but a cystic fibrosis sufferer’s immune system is unable to do this.

Although cystic fibrosis sufferers have long been known to be at more of a risk of the infection, Miss Armstead was the first to accurately determine the worldwide extent of the link.

Miss Armstead was working with Professor David Denning, who is director of the National Aspergillosis Centre and professor of infectious diseases in global health at the University of Manchester. He said her research has helped develop antifungal treatments, which can reduce the symptoms of aspergillosis, may also help cystic fibrosis sufferers, adding, “It’s very unusual for someone her age to do something which could have such a big impact.”

Jo Armstead, from Altrincham, Cheshire, said: “It has been really great to be involved in the first project of its kind ever done, with dramatic results and real opportunities for better health in young cystic fibrosis sufferers.”

Jo’s findings could also help diagnose cystic fibrosis in countries which do not have a neonatal screening programme, enabling sufferers to receive the right sort of treatment and enjoy a prolonged life.

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