Research Training Fellowship: Dr Emma Haughton
This research was completed on 1 April 2010
Published on 27 May 2007
Getting back to the basics of liver disease
Each year, Action Medical Research awards these prestigious grants to help the brightest and best doctors and scientists develop their career in medical research. Dr Haughton’s grant of £149,965 will fund her three-year study into the biological processes that drive the progression of liver disease.
Dr Emma Haughton is a talented young scientist who has already published important work on the liver in leading journals. She is determined to develop her laboratory skills still further, to rise to the challenge of finding urgently needed new therapies for people with liver disease.
The UK is experiencing an epidemic of liver disease, with death rates from cirrhosis increasing dramatically over the last 30 years.1 Transplantation is the only effective treatment for many people with end-stage liver disease. But transplantation has risks, and large rises in the number of people needing transplants are expected, making it increasingly difficult to meet the demand.
Chronic fibrosis of the liver is a major challenge to medicine worldwide. Being recognised as having a suitable research pedigree to be awarded this Fellowship, so I can study how disease damages the liver, gives me a great deal of satisfaction and pride.Dr Emma Haughton
The silent progression to cirrhosis
Liver disease is an important cause of death and illness in the UK. The number of sufferers is on the up, and they are getting younger. Of the 4,000 people who died of cirrhosis in 1999, two thirds were under 65 years of age.1
Many different things can put people at risk of liver disease, including hepatitis C, drinking too much alcohol, inherited liver disorders, heart failure and certain cancers. Most sufferers don’t realise how severely their liver is being damaged, as cirrhosis can remain silent for many years. ‘When symptoms do develop, they can be overwhelming, making everyday life seem extremely difficult,’ says Dr Haughton. ‘Many people become lethargic, weak and generally unwell. Most also suffer nausea and vomiting at some time.’ Scar tissue in a cirrhotic liver interferes with its vital functions, eventually leading to liver failure and cancer.
Combining therapy with a healthy lifestyle can sometimes relieve symptoms and delay disease progression. But for many people with end-stage liver disease transplantation can be the only hope. ‘Though highly successful, a liver transplant is a major operation that is seen as a last resort,’ says Dr Haughton. ‘It is by no means a cure and is not available to everyone.
Which cells control inflammation?
The liver is very good at repairing itself. It recovers from many infections and injuries without suffering any permanent damage. But some infections, and prolonged exposure to toxins, can cause persistent inflammation within the liver, which eventually leads to scarring and cirrhosis. Dr Haughton is investigating exactly what drives this inflammation, by studying interactions between different types of cells.
She is using human liver cells isolated with patients’ consent from pieces of waste liver removed during surgical procedures. ‘I believe that increasing our understanding of the biological processes that lead to liver disease is critical to the development of new treatments.’ says Dr Haughton. ‘Many thanks to Action Medical Research for giving me the chance to do this important work.
|Project Leader||Dr E L Haughton|
|Location||Liver Research Laboratory, Institute of Biomedical Research, Department of Medicine, University of Birmingham|
|Grant awarded||27 February 2007|
|Start date||2 April 2007|
|End date||1 April 2010|
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Revealing new drug targets
Dr Haughton is researching the processes that take place within the liver at a fundamental level. She hopes her work will reveal important new information on which cells drive the persistent inflammation that causes chronic liver disease, and how those cells work. Further down the line, these findings may lead to new treatments for people with liver disease.
‘If I can identify the processes that cause the excessive inflammation and scarring in chronic liver disease, this might lead to the development of new drugs that can hinder those processes and so halt the progression of liver disease.’ She hopes such treatments could free people from their debilitating symptoms and reduce the need for transplants. Dr Haughton’s work may also lead to benefits for people with other inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Investing in an outstanding young researcher
This Research Training Fellowship is also giving a well deserved boost to talented Dr Haughton’s personal career ambitions. ‘I love working in this area of research, and hope eventually to lead my own research group,’ she says. ‘It would give me a great sense of achievement if the findings of my work made a real difference to the lives of people with liver disease.’
Inflammation forms a central part of the liver’s response to the threat caused by infections or toxins. A healthy liver uses the inflammatory process to help repair any damage. ‘The liver is a fascinating organ in terms of both its ability to regenerate and its vast array of functions,’ explains Dr Haughton. But when inflammation persists over the longer term, it can actually harm, rather than help, the liver.
Initially, it leads to scarring, known as fibrosis. Eventually, the normally smooth liver becomes hard and lumpy, a condition known as cirrhosis. The liver has a wide range of important roles, but a cirrhotic liver cannot function properly. Dr Haughton is studying what drives the persistent inflammation and scarring that cause cirrhosis, by studying interactions between different cells. She is paying particular attention to a group of cells called human Hepatic Stellate Cells (hHSC). It’s already known that these cells promote the formation of scar tissue in the liver.
Dr Haughton suspects that they may also have a key role in the development of cirrhosis. She thinks that they may do this by influencing the behaviour of white blood cells, which, in turn, control inflammation.
‘I am very excited about this Fellowship,’ says Dr Haughton. ‘I am joining a centre of excellence at Birmingham University, with unrivalled facilities and expertise in the study of both the liver and inflammatory processes. This will give me the edge that I need to succeed, and to continue to develop as a scientist.Dr Emma Haughton
1. Department of Health. On the State of Public Health. The Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer. 2001. London, Department of Health