UTHSCT biomedical researcher receives half-a-million dollars to investigate pleural fibrosis, a deadly lung disease

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A scientist at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler who investigates life-threatening lung disease has been awarded his first research grant from the National Institutes of Health: $550,800 over five years.

Torry Tucker, Ph.D., will use the money to probe the mysteries of pleural fibrosis, a lung disease caused by bacterial infections, exposure to asbestos, and heart bypass surgery.

“Our research could allow people with scarred lungs to take 30 steps without being out of breath, rather than just 10 steps. That’s the difference between going to your front door and walking to your mailbox,” Dr. Tucker said.

The pleura is a thin membrane that surrounds the lungs. In pleural fibrosis, part or all of a lung is covered with a thick layer of tissue that limits the lung’s ability to expand.

Dr. Tucker and his team have discovered that specific enzymes – called coagulation proteases – that usually help wounds heal play a role in the development of pleural fibrosis.

“This grant enables us to study how the disease progresses, using a model that was developed here at UTHSCT,” said Dr. Tucker, an assistant professor of biochemistry.

When your lungs are injured, the blood-clotting process that keeps bleeding under control also causes fibrosis, a type of scarring, he explained. Another process, called fibrinolysis, breaks down this scar tissue.

However, the scar tissue changes as it is broken down, Dr. Tucker said.

“The pleura normally is only one cell thick. However, if it’s injured it can grow to be as much as 20 cells thick. A pleura that thick can make it difficult to breathe,” he said.

If Dr. Tucker’s team can figure out how to block the blood-clotting process, the scarring could be stopped or perhaps even reversed. He and his team are examining certain drugs that seem promising when it comes to preventing scar tissue from forming.

“These drugs are already on the market and have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat other conditions. That means the drugs can go right into clinical trials,” Dr. Tucker said.

Even if these drugs can’t heal all the scarred tissue, they might be able to significantly improve how well the lungs work.

Dr. Tucker has worked on several NIH grants since he came to UTHSCT in 2007 as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of UTHSCT Vice President for Research Steven Idell, MD, Ph.D. However, this is his first time to be the principal researcher for an NIH grant.

For more than 60 years, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler has provided excellent patient care and cutting-edge treatment, specializing in pulmonary disease, cancer, heart disease, primary care, and the disciplines that support them. UTHSCT’s annual operating budget of $125 million represents a major economic impact of over $287 million for the Northeast Texas region. Since 2002, scientists in the Center for Biomedical Research have been awarded more than $120 million in research dollars. As the academic health science center for Northeast Texas, its graduate medical education programs – with residencies in family medicine and occupational medicine – provide doctors for many communities throughout the region and beyond. UTHSCT is also the program sponsor of the residency program in internal medicine at Good Shepherd Medical Center in Longview.

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