A University of Southern California researcher has received a $6.9 million U.S. government grant to continue her work on lung cell regeneration as a way of treating such diseases as pulmonary fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Dr. Zea Borok of the university’s Keck School of Medicine received the seven-year grant under the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute‘s R35 program. Unlike other institute grants, R35 funds a scientist’s overall research program rather than a specific project. The grants go to outstanding young researchers doing heart, lung, blood, and sleep-disorder work.
Borok’s research is exploring how alveoli cells regenerate themselves. Alveoli are tiny air sacs in lungs where gas exchange takes place.
“Without alveolar cells, you can’t breathe properly, or you can go into respiratory failure and die,” Borok said in a press release. “That’s the endpoint [outcome] of a lot of common lung diseases.”
Using a number of approaches, including stem cell research, Borok hopes to learn more about how the body maintains alveolar cells and how they repair themselves.
The research could lead to a greater understanding of pulmonary fibrosis, whose hallmark is progressive scarring in the lungs. The causes of PF remain unknown.
“The median survival rate for pulmonary fibrosis is three to five years, and current treatments are limited,” Borok said. “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..
“Understanding the mechanisms that promote or prevent alveolar epithelial cell regeneration will provide valuable insight into how the lungs repair themselves after injury and could open the door to new therapies for lung diseases like pulmonary fibrosis,” she added.
The R35 grant program, which was started in 2016, allows researchers greater freedom in their research.
“This generous grant” recognizes Borok’s “exceptional contributions to alveolar epithelial cell research, and it will enable her to chart new territory in this field of study,” said Dr, Rohit Varma, dean of the Keck School of Medicine. “We are looking forward to seeing where the science takes her.”