By the time COVID-19 first reached the Commonwealth, UK HealthCare had already established a system for efficiently collecting lung samples to propel important research forward. That’s thanks to Jamie Sturgill, PhD.

Dr. Sturgill is part of the Kentucky Research Alliance for Lung Disease (K-RALD), a team of clinicians and scientists combatting lung disease with support from the UK College of Medicine Alliance Research Initiative. In 2019, shortly after the K-RALD team was awarded Alliance funding, Dr. Sturgill led the development of a lung biobank to collect and study samples of lung, blood, and alveolar fluid. Initially, the biobank was intended to help researchers and clinicians study traditional lung diseases that impacted Kentuckians such as acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and pulmonary fibrosis.

Then, in 2020, COVID-19 spread rapidly across the U.S.

Meanwhile, K-RALD’s lung biobank team was already talking to patients, talking to families, screening, enrolling, and collecting samples. The connection between the clinicians and basic scientists in the lab was already established. In a time of health care urgency, “it just made that transition so much more simple,” Dr. Sturgill said.

Dr. Sturgill has been involved in every intensive care unit (ICU) collection for every COVID-19 sample UK researchers have used. Her team has followed every person who has gone on to have a lung transplant after suffering from COVID-19. A paper was recently published about the team’s findings.

“We’re really facilitating the ICU clinical care to the lab and back,” she said.

General knowledge about COVID-19 has expanded, but Dr. Sturgill’s research focus – and her commitment to the improved health of Kentuckians – remains the same. The lung biobank has collected over 100 different samples from more than 100 patients to study COVID-19 and other lung diseases. And because the biobank had samples before and after COVID-19, the team can compare data.

Dr. Sturgill understood the importance of the clinical and basic science collaboration well before she joined the Alliance Research Initiative. Her research is translational, “from the bench to the bedside.” She was initially hired at the UK College of Medicine in pulmonology and critical care medicine, gaining experience in the ICU collecting samples and collaborating with critical care faculty. She has since moved to tenure-track faculty in microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics.

Thanks to her work with the Alliance Research Initiative and K-RALD, Dr. Sturgill said she has been connected with some “amazing mentors” who have helped her develop as a translational researcher, including K-RALD principal investigators Peter Morris, MD, and Christopher Waters, PhD, the Dr. Donald T. Frazier Professor of Physiology.

“As a basic scientist,” Dr. Sturgill said, “Dr. Waters is an amazing mentor. He’s a leader in the mechanisms of acute lung injury and ARDS.”

“It’s one thing to do translational research, but to actually get the feedback from clinicians, that has been amazing,” she continued. “Being able to work with Dr. Morris, I've learned so much about the day-to-day operations in treating a critically ill patient. If you really want to do meaningful research and to make it clinically relevant, having that mentorship from a clinician is invaluable.”

To learn more about K-RALD, click here.