More funding for early detection of silicosis

Wednesday, 17 May, 2023

More funding for early detection of silicosis

Monash University has received a funding boost for research projects related to the early screening and detection of silicosis.

The first reported case of engineered stone-induced silicosis in Australia was in 2015, rising to more than 600 cases by 2022. It affects an estimated one in four engineered stoneworkers, as well as miners and tunnellers, and it is expected that there will eventually be more than 100,000 cases of silicosis across Australia.

Associate Professor Jane Bourke, Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute’s (BDI) Head of Respiratory Pharmacology, has been awarded funding totalling $416,000 across two research projects tackling the issue of silicosis.

The first project, awarded by the Victorian Medical Research Acceleration Fund (VMRAF) for $93,500 in 2023, will look at early screening of people to see if they have chemical signatures representing silicosis. The second, funded by the Dust Diseases Board of NSW (DDB) through icare for $322,500 across 2023–2025, is for testing of therapeutic agents which can ameliorate or prevent progression of lung scarring characteristic of silicosis.

“At present, only people with symptoms are presenting to hospitals, which means many more may be developing disease, but not know about it,” Bourke said.

“That’s why early detection in the workplace is so important. What usually happens during a disease process involving inhaled foreign substances is that immune system cells in the body can detect and destroy them. Unfortunately, this defence mechanism isn’t helpful when exposed to silica dust because silica cannot be destroyed or removed. Silica remains in the lungs and causes constant and persistent inflammation and lung scarring. What we’re planning to do is obtain a unique biochemical profile of this response to silica, to develop a signature of ‘biomarkers’ in exhaled breath.

“We want to make sure that workers are aware of the dangers of silica dust and provide them with the best chance to catch potential lung disease early, before irreversible damage has occurred.”

Having a non-invasive test that is simple to administer would enable population-based screening programs, a critical next step in dealing with silicosis. So too is having therapeutics which can reverse lung scarring caused by the disease.

Bourke’s research project is one of those selected for funding by the DDB to investigate various potential therapeutic agents for silicosis. Annually, the DDB, through icare, funds research and other activities into the causes, mechanisms, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of dust diseases with the aim to reduce the risk of dust diseases and improve outcomes for those whose lives are impacted.

“In silicosis, the inhaled silica particles cause irritation and damage when they lodge deep in the lungs. The body then generates collagen, which damages the lungs and goes on to form scar tissue, or fibrosis, and eventually, lung function is compromised. We plan to test a number of drugs to reverse the scarring, so there won’t be a fatal build-up of scar tissue,” Bourke said.

She said that her research team had developed a model for specifically testing silicosis drugs in human tissue.

“We will take microscopic slices of tissue from human lungs, donated but not used for transplantation. We will expose them to silica dust and inflammatory protein cocktails found in the lungs of silicosis patients to cause lung damage and scarring. This will mimic the environment in the silicotic lung. Then, excitingly, we can test two anti-fibrotic drugs (already approved and shown to be effective in another lung disease) and two promising novel in-house drugs to target inflammation and fibrosis in silicosis.”

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