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Harnessing the Body’s Power to Fight Disease

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A naturally occurring lipid in the lungs helps fight viral infections.

Dr. Voelker & Dr. Numata

While looking for clues to how the lungs defend against viruses, bacteria and other airborne microbial threats, Dennis Voelker, PhD, and Mari Numata, PhD, MD, discovered how POPG in the liquid that lines the far reaches of the lungs defends against viral invaders.

Women account for 80 percent of patients with autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers at National Jewish Health have discovered an immune cell that accumulates in females and those prone to autoimmune diseases. Understanding why and how these “Age-associated B Cells” arise could lead to new therapies for autoimmune diseases, which currently have no cure.

How the Lungs Protect

Humans inhale a lot of air. Each one of us, sick or healthy, inhales thousands of liters of air every day. The lungs absorb nourishing oxygen and remove carbon dioxide, while protecting against irritants, pollutants and infectious organisms carried in with the inhaled air. Drs. Voelker and Numata sought to understand how the lungs protect us from potential airborne threats.

Dr. Voelker explains more:

POPG* Discovery

They looked at surfactant, the fluid coating the air sacs at the far ends of the lungs, where oxygen is absorbed. While investigating two prominent proteins in the surfactant, they unexpectedly discovered a lesser known lipid that shaped the immune response to a much greater degree. Drs. Voelker and Numata found that the lipid, known as POPG*, defends specifically against major respiratory viruses; it prevents infection and reduces damaging inflammation by attaching tightly to various pathogenic viruses, including the flu, respiratory syncytial virus and the common cold virus.
Dr. Numata explains more in this YouTube video.


New Treatment Promise

POPG could be an important, inexpensive and novel approach for the prevention and treatment of influenza and other respiratory viral infections. It is relatively inexpensive and easy to manufacture. Cell cultures and animal research suggest that inhaling extra POPG significantly boosts the immune response against viral infections. National Jewish Health, Dr. Voelker and Dr. Numata have received patents covering the immune function of POPG and several similar lipids. The researchers continue their investigations while seeking support for larger, more expensive experiments needed to move POPG and similar molecules toward clinical application.

Learn more from Dr. Voelker in this YouTube video.