Summer Intern Makes Medical Breakthrough

Summer Intern Makes Medical Breakthrough

By Paul Conley

So, what did you do over your summer vacation? Jo Armstead, a 21 year-old medical student in the UK, made a major discovery that could alter the diagnosis and treatment of cystic fibrosis around the globe.

Armstead told The Telegraph that when her plans for a big summer trip to the Himalayas fell through last year, she took an internship at a hospital.

On her first day working for Prof. David Denning, she was asked to find out how many people around the world had cystic fibrosis—a potentially fatal genetic disorder that causes thick mucus to build in the lungs and digestive system. Armstead figured she’d “just Google it,” but soon realized that very few countries were collecting the data. So she began searching for the information herself.

“I emailed every single person I could find online who had anything to do with cystic fibrosis to get as much information as I could. I spent hundreds of hours on it all summer,” Armstead told The Telegraph.

She continued working on the project for another nine months until she had assembled data on 75,000 people in 30 countries who suffer from the incurable disease.

Armstead then discovered something in the data that previously eluded doctors and researchers: half of the adults who suffer from cystic fibrosis are also infected with a common fungus called aspergillus, which can cause bronchitis or a severe allergy that can lead to permanent lung damage.

And that breakthrough means clinicians will be able to diagnose cystic fibrosis earlier in the disease process.

Aspergillus fruiting bodies inside lung tissue. Courtesy of The Aspergillus Website

“By painstakingly crunching the numbers, Jo has helped us better understand the scale of the challenge which will lead to better diagnostics and treatment strategies,” Prof. Denning told the Telegraph. “There will be many patients who over the coming years will be grateful to Jo and her work.”

Armstead’s work has since appeared in a leading research journal, and she did finally get to take a big trip. She was a featured speaker at an international cystic fibrosis conference in Barcelona earlier this year.


Paul Conley is a contributor to XPRIZE and an editorial consultant to brands, nonprofits and business publishers. He also writes about his unconventional approach to work, life and happiness at ABigFishinaSmallPond.com.

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