Asking Questions, Finding Answers
Research discoveries suggest new therapies, healing strategies
Every day at National Jewish Health, researchers ask questions. How does a lung repair itself? Why does the immune system sometimes turn against the body it is supposed to protect? How can we best protect children with food allergies? Every day, those same researchers find answers that are crucial to discovering new treatments and strategies to help people live longer, healthier lives. Here are a few examples of the sometimes surprising answers National Jewish Health researchers have found to their questions.
Lung Repair Process Discovered
Stijn De Langhe, PhD, has discovered key cells and molecular signals that allow the lung to repair itself. The findings could be valuable both for turning on and turning off the repair process in the lungs. Augmenting repair could be invaluable in acute lung injury, emphysema and other diseases that damage lung tissue. In other diseases, such as asthma and pulmonary fibrosis, turning off a repair process that has gone awry might help treat those diseases. Dr. De Langhe and his colleagues found that one type of lung cell, called a Clara cell, survived exposure to toxic chemicals, then multiplied, and differentiated into various types of cells to fully repair damaged lungs. Dr. De Langhe also discovered the molecular signals that trigger that repair process.
Virus Protects Against Lupus
Epstein-Barr virus has been thought to predispose people to autoimmune diseases such as lupus and multiple sclerosis because it more commonly infects people with those diseases. Laboratory experiments by Roberta Pelanda, PhD, however, suggest just the opposite; the virus conferred protection against lupus. When Dr. Pelanda and her colleagues infected mice that always develop lupus with a virus closely related to Epstein-Barr, they had milder forms of the disease and suffered less tissue damage. “We were completely surprised,” said Dr. Pelanda. “We believe the virus is affecting a basic mechanism of immunity and could lead to therapeutic targets for lupus and other autoimmune diseases.”
Lipid Blocks Influenza
Many infections enter through the lungs, with viruses and bacteria frequently inhaled from the air. The immune system puts up a protective barrier with several proteins in the lungs that recognize and attack infectious organisms. A few years ago, Dennis Voelker, PhD, and Mari Numata-Nakamura, MD, PhD, discovered POPG, the first lipid (fat) molecule known to confer immune protection. Lipids offer advantages over proteins as potential medications. They are less likely to elicit unwanted immune responses, are more chemically stable and are less expensive to manufacture. This year Drs. Voelker and Numata-Nakamura demonstrated that POPG can protect against influenza in cell cultures and mice. Those findings build on previous experiments showing that POPG reduces inflammation and protects against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
Young Children React to Food
Food allergies pose a greater threat to young children than previously recognized. In June 2012, David Fleischer, MD, and Dan Atkins, MD, reported that 71 percent of young children, ages 3-15 months, with allergies to milk and egg, had at least one allergic reaction to food in the next three years. The reactions were caused most often by unintentional ingestion, label-reading errors and cross-contamination with other foods. Although 11 percent of the reactions were severe, only 30 percent of them were treated appropriately with epinephrine, a medication that caregivers can administer with an EpiPen to reduce symptoms. “Our findings indicate that parents and other caregivers need to be even more vigilant in avoiding allergenic foods and treating reactions appropriately,” said Dr. Fleischer.