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Friday 01 December 2023

Southampton doctor and team honoured for research into lung disorders

Growing research into a rare lung disease has been recognised in two prestigious honours.

Dr Sophie Fletcher and her research fellows have won separate NIHR British Thoracic Society Clinical Research Network awards.

They were presented with the prizes at the British Thoracic Society (BTS) Winter Meeting, which took place this month at the QEII Centre in London.

Dr Fletcher is a Consultant Respiratory Physician at University Hospital Southampton and holder of a Research Leaders Programme fellowship. Her team’s research focuses on improving the understanding and treatment of interstitial lung disease (ILD).

Double success

NIHR BTS Clinical Research Network awards recognise outstanding achievements by respiratory researchers. There are four categories, suitable for researchers at different stages of their career.

Dr Fletcher received a category A award. This is for a Principal Investigator (PI) or Chief Investigator who makes an outstanding contribution in the design, conduct and dissemination of NIHR portfolio studies. It also recognises their work to build research capacity.

Over the last decade she has specialised in ILD research, representing Southampton nationally and internationally as a recognised leader in the field. She co-founded, and continues to lead, the Wessex ILD patient support group (WILD). Since 2012, she has supported six UK clinical fellows in ILD research. She has also provided opportunities for six international fellows, and founded a clinical international fellowship in ILD at UHS. In the last year, she has supervised four successful NIHR associate PIs.

Her ILD team received an Excellence in Research award. This recognises research teams making an outstanding contribution to NIHR portfolio studies. The team includes Dr Fletcher, Emma Kinsella, Jennifer Naftel, Nicola Wood, Abigail Jones, Shauna Marshall and Andrew Proctor.

Giving patients more options

ILD is a group of rare diseases that cause fibrosis, or scarring, of the lungs. Patients experience shortness of breath that gets worse over time, to the point that they may need oxygen.

The most common of these conditions is idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. People diagnosed with this condition only have a life expectancy of 3-5 years from diagnosis. It has limited treatment options, and these can only be prescribed by a specialist centre. UHS is one of only around 23 specialist centres for the disease in the UK.

Patients taking part in a clinical trial, however, can access to other novel antifibrotic drugs for free. Dr Fletcher says she explains it to her patients as the difference between having just the first page of a menu to choose from (drugs available on the NHS), and the full menu (with additional research options).

“It’s morale boosting to get recognition for the work that we do,” says Dr Fletcher, “particularly as we work exclusively in interstitial lung disease, which is a rare disease that many people know little about.”