This program is expected to expand knowledge on fibrosis and lead to potentially groundbreaking discoveries that could open up new therapeutic opportunities.
“In many ways, fibrosis is as significant a problem as cancer, but we have no reliable approaches for early detection or effective treatment,” Thomas Barker, PhD, a biomedical engineering professor at UVA and leader of the initiative, said in a university news story. “Our goal is to produce fundamental insights that can be applied across organ systems.”
The initiative was developed to support research funding, with the goal of eventually being awarded a National Institutes of Health “Center of Excellence” grant. If successful, researchers hope it will position UVA as a key hub in the worldwide effort to improve diagnosis and treatment for fibrosis.
UVA has a few important elements that will contribute to the success of the Fibrosis Initiative. It has brought together a diverse group of faculty members with extensive expertise in basic cellular biology essential for the understanding of fibrosis mechanisms. This includes a core group of researchers in the department of biomedical engineering who focus on fundamental fibrotic processes.
The university also has several clinicians and scientists with expertise in pulmonology, cardiology, nephrology, and microbiology, who have been addressing fibrosis in the context of specific organ systems.
In addition to the critical foundations of this extensive team, UVA is also internationally recognized for its strengths in computational and quantitative biology, as well as its preclinical and clinical imaging methods.
Through the collaboration that is the basis of the Fibrosis Initiative, scientists will be able to make advances in fibrosis research that would be impossible with conventional methods.
“Researchers here [at UVA] are truly open to helping other labs, even if there is no immediate benefit to themselves,” said Jeffrey Saucerman, PhD, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, who is focused on understanding the mechanism of heart fibrosis.
“UVA has brought together a superb group of people who actively look for opportunities to combine forces. This combination is very rare,” said Alexander Krupnick, MD, a thoracic surgeon, and the surgical director of lung transplant and an associate professor of surgery, who is investigating the role of fibrosis in lung transplant rejection.
Supported by its critical mass, expertise, and advanced technologies, the Fibrosis Initiative will address the biomechanical and biochemical processes of fibrosis. These multidisciplinary teams will investigate what triggers cells to change their behavior over time toward a pro-fibrotic state, as well as how cells interpret these signals and communicate these changes among themselves.
Researchers will also try to find better ways to prevent, detect, and monitor fibrosis.
“I think this big-tent approach is exactly what we need, because fibrosis cuts across so many different areas,” said Mark Okusa, MD, chief of the division of nephrology and an expert in acute kidney injury.
“Creating a network of people who are aware of what other people are doing is incredibly valuable. … The Fibrosis Initiative will build on a solid foundation,” said Andrew Dudley, PhD, a tumor biologist and an associate professor of microbiology, immunology, and cancer biology, who is interested in the role of fibrosis in cancer-associated blood vessel formation.
Because it is associated with many diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis, heart failure, chronic kidney disease, and cirrhosis of the liver, it is estimated that fibrosis is involved in or is the direct cause of as many as 40 percent of all deaths worldwide.