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Research call into occupational lung fibrosis as TV soap Neighbours shines a light on disease

As a teenager in the 1990s, many of my weekday tea times revolved around watching the iconic Australian soap, Neighbours. The marriage of Scott and Charlene, the disappearance of Harold Bishop and the dastardly doings of Paul Daniels kept us all enthralled. 

Thirty years on, Neighbours is now drawing to close, and the sun is finally setting on the inhabitants of Ramsay Street.

Highlighting the impact of lung disease

In recent months, a storyline in Neighbours has tackled the issue of lung fibrosis. Through the story of Hendrix Grayson, the soap has highlighted the impact of a diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis. What started off as a cough, dismissed initially as a cold, developed to become shortness of breath, leading to hospital tests and a diagnosis of sarcoidosis, which had developed into pulmonary fibrosis - a condition where the lungs become scarred and breathing becomes increasingly difficult.

The story of Hendrix's route to diagnosis is a familiar one to those of us who work in the field of occupational lung disease. Often, what starts as an irritating cough can lead to the development of breathlessness, tiredness and loss of appetite, leading to a diagnosis of fibrosis.

What is fibrosis?

Fibrosis is a condition diagnosed in around 2,000 - 6,000 people each year, according to NHS figures. Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is a condition of no known cause to date which occurs in the lungs; however, fibrosis can also be caused by heavy exposures to industrial dusts, such as asbestos (asbestosis), cotton dust (byssinosis), coal dust (pneumoconiosis) and silica (silicosis).

It affects the tissue of the lungs responsible for absorbing oxygen in to the blood from the lungs, consequently causing breathlessness and increasing debility for the sufferers, often necessitating increased care and support from their families. 

There is, sadly, no cure for the condition. Some people can live with the effects of fibrosis for many years, without any noticeable signs of progression. However, some individuals can experience a progressive worsening of symptoms, leaving them with significant disability.

Research leads to treatment hope

Previously, there was little treatment available for sufferers of asbestosis, with a focus mainly on breathing rehabilitation and medication for symptoms, to help people cope with the affects of the condition.

Now, however, new research has indicated that an anti-fibrotic drug known as Nintedanib may help to slow the symptoms caused by progressive asbestosis. Nintedanib has been available for sufferers of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis since 2016, but has recently been licensed for use in any cause of progressive fibrosis of the lungs, including cases of dust-related fibrosis. 

Nintedanib works by slowing down the rate of progression of the fibrosis, helping to maintain lung function for longer. Whilst this is not a cure for asbestosis, the drug can help to slow progression where the disease is active.

Exploring new treatments

The Birmingham Regional NHS Occupational Lung Disease Service want to explore new treatment options and protocols through research, to help sufferers of ‘benign’ asbestos-related conditions and their families.

Dr Chris Huntley, West Midlands Respiratory Medicine Registrar with a specialist interest in Interstitial and Occupational Lung Disease at the Birmingham Regional NHS Occupational Lung Disease Service says: “We want to develop this area of research so we can better understand the needs of patients with non-malignant occupational disease. However, as researchers, we want to carry out projects that will make a real difference to patients and have a positive impact on their treatment and experience of living with these conditions.

"We are inviting patients and their families to register to take part in focus groups, to discuss potential research projects and ideas. This will help us identify research priorities and shape our research for years to come.”

Neil Bishop, Manager of Asbestos Support Central England, commented: “It is great to see researchers taking an interest in helping people live with the effects of asbestos and other industrial dust exposures many years earlier. 

"Often, sufferers of asbestosis and other occupational dust diseases are amongst the most heavily exposed to dangerous dust, and the impacts of a diagnosis with non-malignant occupational disease have to be lived with for many years, often at a significant physical and emotional cost to the sufferer and their families. 

"We would encourage everyone to take part in this research if they can, so that we can make a real impact on how patients are treated and supported in the future”.

For anyone who wants to take part in the research or are interested in sharing some initial thoughts on future asbestos-related lung disease research, please scan the QR code below and complete the short form. Alternatively visit the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust website to access the form.

For any patients interested in finding out more about clinical trials in asbestos-related lung diseases or registering interest in participating, please email

We have recently seen the positive impact that clinical research has made in the field of mesothelioma with approval for first new NHS treatment for the disease in 15 years.  Hopefully, with further research, new breakthroughs in management and treatment of fibrosis will follow.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people affected by fibrosis and other conditions at our dedicated industrial diseases section.  

Hendrix Grayson’s (Benny Turland) world was turned upside down in Neighbours, as he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis.

The soap mainstay has developed a serious cough in recent weeks, which he thought was nothing more than a symptom of a cold.”