The research team, led by Zea Borok — a professor of medicine at Keck — hopes that its efforts will identify mechanisms that can be exploited in the development of new treatments for lung diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis.
The grant, which runs for seven years, is part of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) program to fund overall research programs, rather than individual projects. Since many project-specific grants span only a few years, this approach gives researchers more freedom to pursue new research. The grant was awarded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
“Without alveolar cells, you can’t breathe properly or you can go into respiratory failure and die,” Borok, who is also the Ralph Edgington Chair in Medicine and Chief of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, said in a USC news report written by Erica Rheinschild. “That’s the endpoint of a lot of common lung diseases.”
With the help of stem cells — among other things — Borok and her team will try to understand and detail how alveolar cells maintain and regenerate themselves. If the key to regeneration could be found, drugs could be designed that use it to promote the healing of lung injury, such as that seen in fibrosis.
“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 University of Southern California is one of four research institutions in the state awarded the grant. The grant program, called R35, provides emerging and outstanding researchers with grants running over several years.
“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.”