Prestigious award for Queen’s researcher who has dedicated her career to battling Chronic Airways Diseases

QUB Vice-Chancellor, Professor Patrick Johnston, Dr Lorraine Martin & Mr Conor Murphy, MLA.
QUB Vice-Chancellor, Professor Patrick Johnston, Dr Lorraine Martin & Mr Conor Murphy, MLA.

Dr Lorraine Martin, who hails from Ballymena, has spoken of her delight after winning the highly-coveted Vice-Chancellor’s Research Impact Prize.

Lorraine, who is a Senior Lecturer in Molecular Pharmaceutics within the School of Pharmacy at Queen’s University, Belfast, has incredibly remained at the university since commencing her Bachelor of Science Degree at the age of 18, and chose to remain at the university throughout her extensive academic training and successful research career.

Dr Lorraine Martin with husband, Dr Andrew McDowell.

Dr Lorraine Martin with husband, Dr Andrew McDowell.

She was one of four world-class researchers at the university who were recognised for the positive research impact and innovation of their work.

Lorraine was awarded the Research Impact prize for her outstanding research into respiratory diseases, which led to the creation of local company and university spin-out, ProAxsis Ltd.

Focusing on active proteases and their role as markers of disease, led Lorraine and colleague Professor Brian Walker to found the company in 2013.

As founding CEO, Lorraine successfully translated a programme from academic research to a commercial platform.

Back row: QUB Vice-Chancellor, Professor Patrick Johnston, Dr Wendy Austin & Mr Conor Murphy, MLA. Front row: Professor Christopher Marsh - Research Innovation (School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics), Dr Lorraine Martin - Research Impact (School of Pharmacy), Dr Anna Bryson - Postdoctoral Research (School of Law) & Dr Trung Q Duong - Early Career Research (School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science)

Back row: QUB Vice-Chancellor, Professor Patrick Johnston, Dr Wendy Austin & Mr Conor Murphy, MLA. Front row: Professor Christopher Marsh - Research Innovation (School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics), Dr Lorraine Martin - Research Impact (School of Pharmacy), Dr Anna Bryson - Postdoctoral Research (School of Law) & Dr Trung Q Duong - Early Career Research (School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science)

Founded in 2013, the company - which now has customers in the US and across Europe - uses patented technology to develop biomarker tests to improve the management and treatment of chronic respiratory diseases.

Her work highlights how university research can lead to commercial success, as well as meeting clinical need and improving patient care.

Lorraine said: “I was delighted to be shortlisted for this award, and to be announced as the winner at the event on Friday night was truly one of the highlights of my career.

“I am passionate about researching and developing new ways to improve the management and treatment of chronic airways diseases - particularly Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Cystic Fibrosis.

Queens University Belfast Vice-Chancellor, Professor Patrick Johnston with Dr Wendy Austin, who hosted the evening.

Queens University Belfast Vice-Chancellor, Professor Patrick Johnston with Dr Wendy Austin, who hosted the evening.

“I won the Research Impact Prize for my work with ProAxsis which I began in 2013 after winning the NISP Connect 25K competition (now INVENT), which awarded us the top prize of £13K in funding.

“I was CEO of the company from 2013 until October 2015, supported by a Research Enterprise Fellowship, awarded by the university.

“The company develops novel biomarker assays utilising a patented ProteaseTag technology - which allows for the measurement of active proteases in chronic diseases, in the first instance respiratory diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

“The hope is that people will ultimately be able to use these novel tests at home to detect when they might be at risk of a chest infection.

“The early detection of respiratory flare-ups at home by the patient brings the added benefits of catching the infection early, whilst it also lowers the impact on the healthcare system - both in terms of Community and Hospital-based care.

Chronic airways diseases are particularly prevalent throughout Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and causes millions of deaths worldwide each year.

Lorraine explained: “COPD is a global challenge of increasing magnitude as it is the only leading cause of death which is increasing in prevalence worldwide.

“COPD is a combination of chronic bronchitis and emphysema resulting in progressive airflow limitation and consequently difficulty in breathing.

“Currently, there are on average 3.3 million deaths worldwide (250,000 across Europe) and by 2020 COPD is likely to account for over 6 million deaths which will make it the third leading cause of death.

“There is therefore a real need for impact in terms of prevention, treatment and management because lung damage in COPD is progressive and irreversible.

“The total annual cost of COPD to the NHS is estimated to be over £800 million in direct healthcare costs - across the EU this figure increases to €23 bn per annum.

“In the EU, 41,300 lost working days per 100,000 are due to COPD every year (amounting to €28.5 billion per annum).

“In the UK, one in eight emergency admissions to hospital is for COPD, making it the second largest cause of emergency admission and one of the most costly inpatient conditions treated by the NHS.”

With academic achievements including a BSc and PhD in Biochemistry and a Masters of Medical Science in Clinical Laboratory Medicine, upon finishing Ballymena Academy Lorraine studied at Queen’s for a total of 7 years.

Following this, Lorraine took up a research position and in 2000, she successfully secured an academic post within the School of Pharmacy and has since remained with the university as her research projects go from strength to strength.

More recently, Lorraine has led a ground-breaking programme of work, funded by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, UK which has now been published in the prestigious American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Lorraine explained: “The development of lung disease represents the major cause of morbidity and mortality in Cystic Fibrosis and occurs due to aberrant ion channel function and dehydration of the airway surfaces.

“Reduced airway surface liquid levels in turn contribute to the build-up of mucous and predisposes the individual to chronic bacterial infection.

“The ensuing cycles of chronic infection and airway inflammation cause progressive destruction of the airways, which is ultimately fatal.”

The group have performed extensive research in order to develop a novel protease inhibitor which reduces the activity of a critical ion channel resulting in improved airways hydration and significantly increased mucociliary clearance - which are essential to keep the airways free of infection.

Dr Martin added: “This is an important finding which could provide a novel therapeutic opportunity relevant to all individuals with Cystic Fibrosis, as the targeting of this particular ion channel is independent of their underlying CF mutation.

“This strategy could prevent the significant lung damage that results from chronic cycles of infection and inflammation, with potential impact on quality of life as well as life expectancy.”

Lorraine also played a pivotal role in the highly publicised joint programme between Queen’s University Belfast and the biotechnology company behind Dolly the cloned sheep, PPL Therapeutics plc, Edinburgh.

During this time, Lorraine was heavily involved in the Phase II clinical trials of a transgenic human protein, known as alpha1 anti-trypsin antrypsin in Cystic Fibrosis - at the end of which Dr Martin obtained a prestigious award from the Department of Trade and Industry.

“This was such a fantastic project and the team involved in this project were an absolute pleasure to work with.

“Winning this award has definitely been one of the highlights of my career, in addition to winning the £25K award in 2013 for ProAxsis.

“I have been a finalist in 2014 and 2015 for the Women in Business Awards which meant a lot to me.”

Lorraine was also full of encouragement for anybody hoping to enter the field of medicine, research and science.

She said: “The field of medical research does require a huge amount of commitment, but it is also a tremendous way of giving back to the world.

“The potential to make a difference for people who are suffering, is just invaluable.

“It makes all of the hard work so worthwhile.”