April Kloxin, PhD, has received the 2019 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s New Innovator Award to develop next-generation materials and tools to help accelerate research on idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF).
Kloxin, a professor at the University of Delaware, is one of 60 researchers across the U.S. to win this year’s award.
The five-year grant, from the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, supports outside-the-box projects conducted by early career researchers that have less chance of obtaining funding from more traditional grant schemes.
“I was honored just to be considered — to actually be selected was a great surprise,” Kloxin said in a University press release written by Julie Stewart.
Kloxin is an expert on biomaterials that resemble actual organ tissues. She has studied the lung since her postdoctoral position at the University of Colorado. Since she joined the University of Delaware in 2011, Kloxin has been studying how the lung environment leads to the development of complex diseases.
“When I came here to start my own lab at UD [University of Delaware], I started thinking: What other aspects of the lung are not well understood?” Kloxin said.
“I started digging in to lung fibrosis [scarring], and I thought there could be an opportunity to use some of the tools that we had, and expand them further for trying to understand not lung regeneration or lung development, which is part of what I was trying to have tools for at Colorado, but now to think about lung disease instead,” Kloxin said.
The NIH grant will support the development of a next-generation lung model to help researchers understand how cells switch to a wound healing status that characterizes lung fibrosis.
“One of the things that motivates the work is that there is limited understanding about the underlying causes of idiopathic lung fibrosis, this essentially uncontrolled wound healing event that just continues to propagate and accumulate scar tissue in the lungs,” Kloxin explained. “There’s really little understanding in humans about why that happens and how to stop it.”
Current IPF models, including animal models, are insufficient to mimic the complexity of the human disease. Better systems could make a major difference in finding a way to prevent the disease, or to find definitive treatments.
Kloxin and her team are therefore developing a 3D model in which they use synthetic [lab-made] materials to mimic the extracellular matrix — the mesh-like scaffold surrounding cells. The team will investigate how changes in the extracellular matrix affect cells, like fibroblasts, lung epithelial cells, and inflammatory cells, promoting their pro-fibrotic features.
To understand what triggers fibrosis, researchers also will develop a reporting system to detect when single cells start to adopt a wound healing state.
With such detailed molecular information, Kloxin hopes to provide important insights into IPF causes, and find alternative treatments for this condition.
“The next five years will really be a whole new frontier for us,” said Kloxin.
It is estimated that more than 3 million people worldwide are affected by IPF. Although available treatments help manage symptoms, there is no actual cure and researchers have not yet unravelled the disease cause.