UT Health Center at Tyler receives a grant of almost $7.8 million from National Institutes of Health to study lung scarring

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

TYLER, Texas - The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler has received the largest government-funded research grant in its history: a grant of almost $7.8 million from the National Institutes of Health to study lung scarring.

The grant award is to be announced at a 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27, news conference at the Harvey Convention Center in Tyler, where UTHSCT’s annual fund-raising gala, "Mission Possible: Where Discovery & Healing Come Together," will begin later that day.

The five-year grant from the National Heart and Lung Institute, part of the NIH, will provide insight into how to protect the lungs from scarring. About 40,000 Americans die from lung scarring, or fibrosis, each year, according to the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation. The scarring causes lung tissue to thicken and interferes with the lungs’ ability to transfer oxygen into the bloodstream. Symptoms of scarring include shortness of breath, chronic cough, and fatigue.

"This is a great day for the Health Center and for biomedical research. By awarding this multimillion-dollar grant to UTHSCT, the National Institutes of Health shows its tremendous respect for our institution and the scientists who work here. It shows that we are well on our way to becoming a national leader in biomedical research," said UTHSCT President Dr. Kirk A. Calhoun.

Steven Idell, MD, Ph.D., vice president for research at UTHSCT, is director of the grant. He and his team will investigate how cells lining the lungs and airways contribute to lung scarring and then will test ways to prevent it. Also leading sections of the NIH grant are Sreerama Shetty, Ph.D., professor of medicine at UTHSCT, and Douglas Cines, MD, vice chair of the Department of Pathology at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, Vijay Rao, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry at UTHSCT, and Andrew Mazar, Ph.D., chief science officer and senior vice president of research and development at Attenuon Laboratories, a biopharmaceutical company in San Diego, Calif., lead efforts to support the work.

"This NIH Program Project grant provides us with the initial resources to determine how the process that clears blood clots influence inflammation and scarring in and around the lungs. We hope to use this data to design new treatments to reverse severe lung injury and prevent excessive scarring. It is an honor for me to partner with respected colleagues - all internationally known experts in their fields - to do this research," Dr. Idell said.

Other UTHSCT research faculty involved in aspects of the NIH grant are: Tim Allen, MD, chair of the Department of Pathology at UTHSCT; Ali Azghani, Ph.D.; Kathy Koenig; Alexei Iakhiaev, Ph.D.; and Ming Liu, Ph.D.

This grant is a major initiative of UTHSCT’s Texas Lung Injury Institute, a special entity dedicated to research into lung diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis, emphysema, asthma, and cystic fibrosis. The Institute is located in state-of-the-art labs at UTHSCT. Investigators at the Institute will conduct research to improve patient care, find new drugs to cure lung diseases, and equip additional labs at UTHSCT. Institute partners include investigators in biotechnology firms and renowned scientists in several academic centers outside the United States.

"The Texas Lung Injury Institute is a group of UTHSCT scientists who are collaborating to find better ways to treat lung diseases that currently can’t be cured or for which treatments are limited and often ineffective," Dr. Idell said.

"These diseases include pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, and asthma. The Institute will use private donations to support projects early in their development. With results from this research, UTHSCT will improve its chances of obtaining additional NIH and other government and private foundation grants," he said.

"For the past 20 years, we have investigated the process of early scar formation in the lungs. We’ve identified target molecules that could be used to prevent this early scarring. Several potential target molecules have undergone preliminary testing, and promising lines of investigation are now being pursued and will eventually be tested in clinical trials," Dr. Idell said.

Several more Institute projects that relate to the NIH-funded study of lung injuries are just beginning or will soon be under way. These include investigating if a particular "clot-busting" drug called scuPA (pronounced "scoopa") can prevent lung scarring, he said. The Institute plans to seek addition funds from the NIH, as well as private funding, for this study. A physician researcher in Germany, Andreas Gunther, MD, of University Hospital in Giessen, Germany, is part of this inquiry.

"If the drugs produced through our research are able to prevent lung scarring, they could also be used against other diseases that cause scarring in the kidneys, the bowel, and other internal organs, as well as prevent scarring caused by cancers," Dr. Idell said.

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