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The genetics of susceptibility to critical illness

Professor Kenneth Baillie leads a research team with a focus on acute inflammation, in particular, influenza, Covid and sepsis.

In 2021, Professor Baillie and his team evidenced dexamethasone as an effective therapy to reduce inflammation in severe Covid cases that saved many lives. Their impressive impact on the world continues through their discovery of genetic associations with Covid-19 that may lead directly to at least one effective new therapy.

Just like in sepsis and influenza, in Covid-19, damage to the lungs is caused by our own immune system, rather than the virus itself. Our genetic results provide a roadmap through the complexity of immune signals, showing the route to key drug targets - Professor Kenneth Baillie

Professor Baillie and his research team are trying to understand the genetics of susceptibility to critical illnesses such as sepsis, influenza and emerging infections, so that they can find ways to help survival and recovery. 

 Given the biological variation in the host response to injury, and that some of this variation is genetic, they can use this genetic variation to find new treatments, using viral respiratory illness as a model for the broader host response to critical injury. 

 Professor Baillie and his team develop and use computational methods to combine data from different sources. Used with in vitro and in vivo genome editing with CRISPR to generate and test hypotheses, their aim is to discover biological processes that might be amenable to treatment.  

 A a philanthropic gift of £14.7 million by Baillie Gifford has enabled a new research facility and programme, The Baillie Gifford Pandemic Science Hub. The University aims to secure a total of £100m investment to accelerate discoveries to drive clinical translation in Covid-19 and other human lung diseases, as well as aiding preparedness for future pandemics.   

 The Hub will use translational genomics, following clues from the human genome to identify and rapidly test new treatments with experimental medicine methods to quickly evaluate and develop drugs for lung inflammation and injury caused by infection. 

It will combine Edinburgh’s world-class ability to determine a person’s genetic predisposition to lung injury with advanced interventional robotics for drug delivery, cutting-edge sensing and sampling technologies, and innovative clinical trial design. 

 To quicken the discovery of new treatments the team will deliver microdoses of multiple medicines to key areas of patients’ lungs and observe if the drugs work on their own or in a combination.    

 The constant risk of respiratory viruses, combined with the emergence of antibiotic resistance in respiratory diseases, means a radical new approach to streamlining drug development and evaluation is needed. To deliver a solution, the Hub will harness the expertise of the University’s leading data scientists, roboticists, engineers, chemists, biologists, regulatory experts, drug developers, toxicologists, translational managers and clinicians.   

The generous donation from Baillie Gifford enables us to build on recent advances in genomics, computing, engineering and experimental medicine – all major strengths at Edinburgh – to speed up the process of drug development, so that we’ll be able to find targeted therapies more quickly for new, and old, diseases. The Hub will use clues from human genetics to develop new drugs, and then build technologies to rapidly test those drugs in critically ill patients. - Professor Kenneth Baillie

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Find out how you can work with the University’s world-class inflammation expertise and state of the art facilities to provide the solution to your research questions.