Mucus discovery a breath of fresh air

Mucus discovery a breath of fresh air

Illuminate newsletter index page, June 2020
June 2020

Associate Professor Ethan Goddard Borger
Associate Professor Ethan Goddard Borger hopes his
research will lead to treatments for patients
with debilitating respiratory conditions.

Institute researchers have discovered how mucus thickness is regulated in a finding that could help to improve airway clearing therapies for people with chronic respiratory conditions.

Insights into the molecular mechanisms driving mucus viscosity were discovered by a team led by Associate Professor Ethan Goddard-Borger.

Worldwide, hundreds of millions of people are impacted by chronic respiratory disease. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) alone affects more than 250 million people, causing 3 million deaths each year.

Milestone in mucus biology

People with chronic respiratory diseases typically produce an excessive amount of thick mucus in the lungs, making it difficult for them to breathe.

Mucus is mostly comprised of water and mucin glycoproteins, which are very long protein strands coated with glycans – a type of sugar molecule.

Associate Professor Goddard-Borger said the study’s findings revealed that mucus viscosity was driven by proteins called ‘trefoil factors’ that bind to mucin glycoproteins.

“Trefoil factors have long been known to make mucus thicker, however, until now we did not understand exactly how they did this.”

Associate Professor Goddard-Borger said the research showed trefoil factors had two glycanbinding sites and could cross-link mucins strands to make the mucus gel more rigid.

“Within mucus, trefoil factors essentially ‘staple’ the mucin strands into a mesh: the more staples, the denser the mesh and the thicker the mucus becomes.”

Hope for breathing easy

Associate Professor Goddard-Borger said next steps included working with commercial collaborators to improve mucolytic drugs.

“Our hope is to make a significant impact on the quality of life and life expectancy of people struggling to breathe with debilitating respiratory conditions.”

Super Content: 
Three researchers standing outside a building

Researchers have found a potential new treatment for asthma that works by targeting the cause of the disease, rather than just masking its symptoms.

Two female scientists in a laboratory

Dr Sarah Best and Dr Kate Sutherland have discovered distinctive characteristics in some lung cancers that could lead to personalised therapies.