A medical student spending her holidays doing work experience at a hospital made a major breakthrough in the treatment of cystic fibrosis.
Jo Armstead, 21, spent hundreds of hours examining medical data from 30 countries and discovered that half of adults who suffer from the rare genetic disorder are infected with a common fungus.
Experts said the finding could help prolong the lives of patients with the debilitating lung condition, as well as help diagnose it where it had not been detected at birth.
The research has now been published in prestigious scientific journal Plos One – but Miss Armstead is too busy revising for her exams to spend much time basking in the glory.
The third year Newcastle University student spent last summer working at Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester, where she made the discovery.
It was the first hospital in the world to carry out a double lung transplant on a patient whose organs were virtually destroyed by cystic fibrosis, and also houses the national centre for the fungal illness aspergillosis.
Working alongside an expert in infectious diseases, she painstakingly crunched the numbers and found that half of the 75,000 cystic fibrosis patients in the study had been infected with the common aspergillus fungus, which causes aspergillosis.
Although cystic fibrosis sufferers have long been known to be at risk of the infection, Miss Armstead was first to accurately determine the worldwide extent of the link.
Aspergillus is commonly found in cellars and compost heaps. It does not affect most healthy people, but those with serious lung conditions are advised to minimise exposure.
Miss Armstead, from Altrincham, Cheshire, said: ‘It has been really great to be involved in the first project of its kind ever done, with dramatic results and real opportunities for better health in young cystic fibrosis sufferers.’
Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder which causes the lungs and digestive system to become clogged with thick mucus. There is currently no cure.
Miss Armstead was working with Professor David Denning, who is director of the National Aspergillosis Centre and professor of infectious diseases in global health at the University of Manchester.
He said her research suggested antifungal treatments, which can reduce the symptoms of aspergillosis, may also help cystic fibrosis sufferers, adding: ‘It’s very unusual for someone her age to do something which could have such a big impact.’
The finding could also help diagnose cystic fibrosis in countries which do not have a neonatal screening programme, enabling sufferers to receive the right treatment and live longer.