Donor Robert Stockley is funding PhD student's COPD research

Aaron Scott, Rob Stockley, Celine Chen and Liz Sapey
Dr Aaron Scott, Professor Robert Stockley, PhD student Celine Chen and Professor Liz Sapey

How Robert Stockley is helping unravel the mysteries of lung conditions. 

Birmingham graduate Professor Robert Stockley has dedicated his life’s work to treating and researching a group of lung conditions that make it difficult to breathe, known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Long before COVID-19 hit the headlines, Rob was investigating a range of respiratory diseases from chronic bronchitis to emphysema, in a range of specialist NHS roles.

The mysterious causes of COPD

COPD is popularly associated with smoking and pollution, but while these play a small role, the primary causes are largely unknown. Birmingham led on clinical trials to determine whether therapies to replace a missing protein in patients known as AAT could be a cure, but this wasn’t sufficiently addressing their lung disease. Something else is going on and Rob is determined to find out what.

Using his speaker fees to make new discoveries

When a lot of research funding was diverted during the height of COVID-19, Rob decided to fund this vital research himself. Every time he had spoken at conferences around the world throughout his career, he had saved the fee, looking for a way to use the money to help people with COPD.

Rob is now supporting Celine Chen through a PhD to carry out the investigations. Celine did both her undergraduate and masters studies at Birmingham.

A new lead

Celine says: ‘We believe we have identified an alternative pathway which could explain why lung diseases keep getting worse for these patients. The first stage of my PhD project will expand the initial evidence, then we will use human cell and tissue models to look at the underlying biology driving these processes.

‘I'm passionate about it because it is an area where not a lot of advancement has been made, especially on the treatment front; currently there is only symptomatic relief for patients. I can see how my work could lead to identifying new treatments, which could make a real impact on patients’ quality of life. The ultimate hope is to find a curative treatment for a disease where only symptomatic relief is available.’

Professor Elizabeth Sapey, Director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing, says: ‘Funding this PhD studentship is the first step in re-examining what we all thought we knew about COPD, by-passing long held concepts that haven’t delivered the benefits we want for patients.’

Why Rob supports PhD students at Birmingham

Rob has supported many students with their research into respiratory diseases over the years, both academically and financially as a former trustee of the West Midlands Chest Fund.

‘Neither of my parents went to a university and I wasn’t expected to go either. I remember seeing our family doctor as a boy with my mum and he asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. When I told him I wanted to be a doctor like him, he advised me to lower my expectations and it nearly put me off altogether. There are so many talented people who are passionate about helping others and making breakthroughs in healthcare, who just don’t get the encouragement and the opportunity to make a difference.

‘Birmingham is ideally placed to undertake an innovative approach to AAT deficiency as it is the biggest and most comprehensive patient database in the world. The group has unique biochemical, relevant cell biology and human lung explant expertise forming all the necessary components to develop an innovative approach to the problem.’

Find out how you could fund vital research like this

If you are inspired by Rob’s gift and the breakthroughs in medical research being made by PhD students, get in touch to see whether supporting research like this could be right for you.

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