Research focused on lung cell regeneration processes has been awarded a $6.9 million, seven-year grant by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), potentially leading to new therapies for chronic diseases.
The financial support will allow researcher Zea Borok, MD, of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC) and her team to explore how cells in the alveoli, which are responsible for gas exchange in the lungs, can maintain themselves and recover from injury. This research may lead to insights on lung disease progression and new therapies for conditions such as pulmonary fibrosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
“Without alveolar cells, you can’t breathe properly or you can go into respiratory failure and die,” Borok, professor of medicine, chief of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine and director of the Hastings Center for Pulmonary Research at Keck, said in a USC news release. “That’s the endpoint of a lot of common lung diseases.”
Borok and her team are focused on understanding genetic modulation mechanisms that occur in alveolar cells, controlling the cells’ differentiation and function. In addition, they want to clarify the role of alveolar cells in pulmonary fibrosis and the mechanisms of cell recovery after lung injury. The biology of lung stem cells and their role in disease is also being studied.
Uncovering the underlying mechanism that promotes or prevents alveolar cell regeneration following lung tissue injury could add new insights into normal lung repair processes. This could pave the way for new therapies for respiratory conditions that lack effective treatments and for which lung transplant is the only available cure.
“The median survival rate for pulmonary fibrosis is three to five years, and current treatments are limited. New drugs have been developed that will stabilize, but not cure, the condition. Lung transplantation is the only other option. There is a tremendous need for new therapies,” Borok said.
The NHLBI R35 program recognizes emerging and outstanding researchers by awarding their studies multiyear grant support. USC is one of four institutions in California to receive an R35 grant this year.
“This generous grant from the NIH is a recognition of Dr. Borok’s exceptional contributions to alveolar epithelial cell research, and it will enable her to chart new territory in this field of study,” said Rohit Varma, dean of the Keck School of Medicine and director of the USC Gayle and Edward Roski Eye Institute. “We are looking forward to seeing where the science takes her.”