Wintec researcher in the race to provide relief for global COVID-19 victims

Dr Stewart is testing a drug to help reduce respiratory damage for COVID-19 patients

Dr Kevin Stewart and the “lung rig” he has assembled at Wintec to test a drug that will reduce ventilator-induced lung injury.

Kiwis are known for their can-do attitude and ingenuity, and an urgent research project involving a sophisticated machine is in the hands of a Wintec academic with a mechanical aptitude.

COVID-19 has highlighted awareness of ventilator-induced lung injury and when the Health Research Council put out a call for urgent research, a diverse group of experts got the incentive they needed.

Dr Kevin Stewart is a co-investigator for a project to further the understanding of whether a medication produced at the University of Auckland can prevent or reduce damage caused by mechanical pulmonary ventilation.

The project is now funded by a Health Research Council  2020 COVID-19 Emerging Infectious Diseases Grant. He says the outcome will deliver relief to people on ventilators or better still, prevent the need for artificial ventilation in the first place.

 “One of the problems experienced by people on artificial ventilation is that the process of mechanical ventilation itself can cause further damage to the lungs and contribute to their declining condition. Therefore, it is hoped that this medication will be useful in the treatment of people who are seriously affected by COVID-19.”

Dr Stewart is working with a team from the University of Auckland led by primary investigator, Professor Anthony Phillips.

His involvement in the project stemmed from an interest in the pancreas, insulin and glucagon which he says morphed into how diseases could influence lung function. But it is Dr Stewart’s mechanical aptitude that has made this project possible.

It all began when he was faced with 12 shipping boxes stacked against a wall. He has since assembled the contents, which he fondly refers to as the “lung rig”, a complicated apparatus which he says has become his life.

“Auckland University invited me to set up this sophisticated equipment that enables all sorts of accurate measurements of lung function. The equipment is tricky to operate as there are so many pumps and measurement devices, but I like that sort of thing.”

This is the only machine in the country and Dr Stewart is the only person who can operate it, so he admits “it’s a natural fit”.

The drug he is testing through the “lung rig” was developed by Auckland University.

“I’m in the middle of testing the efficacy of a drug to see if it can protect ventilated airways,” he says.

Since completing his PhD at Auckland University in 2004, Dr Stewart has collaborated with the research team at Auckland University made up of two professors and a molecular biologist.

“Between us there’s a range of people with very different talents and this has helped to have this research funded,” he says.

It can’t come soon enough. As the coronavirus continues its pandemic spread around the world, with the global total of affected people more than 8 million,  the number of people hospitalised and on ventilation support continues to rise with it.

“I was really pleased to be able to bring this project to Wintec. The project began under lockdown, so it wasn’t going to work well for me to do this in Auckland, as I would have had to find accommodation and allow for the travel time. Wintec is very supportive with its facilities and I have been given the time and the space to do this research.”

“The results are looking encouraging,” he says.

Dr Stewart teaches human anatomy and physiology to undergraduate and post-graduate nursing students and he is also involved in delivering the Bachelor of Technology (Science) at Wintec.

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