A Culture of Collaboration
Gwen Skloot, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of medicine at Mount Sinai National Jewish Health Respiratory Institute and chair of the Assembly on Respiratory Structure and Function for the American Thoracic Society, is a longstanding research collaborator with
many Vermont Lung Center members, including Dixon, Bates and Kaminsky. She considers these UVM researchers her “go-to people” in the U.S. for research expertise in the field of pulmonary physiology.
“In addition to understanding
physiology, Dr. Bates, with his engineering background, has applied mathematical complexities and boiled it down to something simple that anyone can understand,” she says. “Dr. Kaminsky has taken a lead role in establishing guidelines
for various aspects of pulmonary function testing— he is a leader in the field. Dr. Dixon is a leader in understanding obese asthma.”
“Their work on the pulmonary pathophysiology of obesity and asthma has really made great
strides in understanding the late-onset non- allergic obese asthma phenotype,” says Skloot, citing the multiple studies that demonstrated this phenotype may be characterized by increased collapsibility of the peripheral airways.
key part of the Lung Center culture is its emphasis on training the next generation of researchers. In 2004, Irvin, with support from Parsons, was awarded a T32 training grant from the NIH’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to fund the
training and work of predoctoral students pursuing their Ph.D. or M.D. degrees and postdoctoral fellows seeking advanced research experience after earning an M.D. or Ph.D. The NIH training grant has just been renewed for a fourth cycle of funding.
“We’ve had some postdocs that have gone and done incredible things,” says Irvin. He points to Darcy Wagner, Ph.D., as an example. Wagner worked with Professor of Medicine Daniel Weiss, M.D., Ph.D., doing lung regeneration
research. She now leads studies as a faculty member at Sweden’s Lund University and co-chairs the biennial international “Stem Cells, Cell Therapies, and Bioengineering in Lung Biology and Diseases” symposium at UVM.
While some lung diseases of the past have improved over the last century, new diseases are on the rise, including the latest issue of acute lung injury related to e-cigarettes and vaping.
The VLC will be part of the American Lung Association’s
new NIH Adult Cohort for Lung Disease. The objective of the six-year grant is to recruit 200 adults between the ages of 25-35 to perform a baseline of lung health, with the objective of identifying the determinants of ideal lung health and trying
to detect early signs of abnormal lung health before it develops.
“I think the Lung Health cohort is going to be a great opportunity to fully understand the impact that nutrition and obesity have on lung health,” says Dixon,
whose team will be recruiting patients in fall 2020. “We hope to eventually follow these people over time, but it’s just being formed,” she says, adding that “this is going to be an incredible part of what we do.”
In addition, she says, “Pulmonary fibrosis is going to be an important part of our future, with clinicians like Prema Menon, M.D., Ph.D., and basic scientists like Yvonne Janssen-Heininger, Ph.D., and Jos van der Velden, Ph.D., collaborating,”
Though decades have passed since Vermont Lung Center members’ research on the mechanism of pulmonary fibrosis—a disease which causes a thickening and stiffening of lung tissue that complicates normal breathing—the
condition persists, affecting more than 200,000 people in the U.S. and causing 40,000 deaths annually. About 50 percent of patients with pulmonary fibrosis die of the disease within three to five years. But there is good news, thanks to groundbreaking
discoveries by an interdisciplinary collaboration among several Lung Center members. Janssen-Heininger and colleagues, including Associate Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Vikas Anathy, Ph.D., discovered and patented the use of glutaredoxin
(GLRX)—an oxidant- controlling enzyme that shows promise as a treatment for patients with lung fibrosis and other diseases, which has been shown to reverse fibrosis in mouse models.
In 2019, the generous donation of lung tissue from
recently-passed pulmonary fibrosis patients of Prema Menon, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine and director of the Interstitial Lung Disease Clinic at the UVM Medical Center, allowed members of the team to do research with human tissue.
Now, researchers like Jos van der Velden, Ph.D., assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, are using that tissue to create mini lungs to test the potential of GLRX to repair damaged proteins in the lungs of pulmonary fibrosis patients.
Over the past several years, Menon has brought a number of pulmonary fibrosis clinical trials to UVM, two of which became FDA-approved treatments. This, in the end, is the key promise of the lung center, bringing new hope to patients.
The new pulmonary fibrosis treatments have given hope to one of Menon’s patients, Bruce Towne, from Colchester, Vt., who credits his participation in the trials and recent treatment regimens with keeping him alive years beyond his diagnosis.
“It took me probably six months to come to terms that I was going to die from this disease,” Towne said, when interviewed for a WCAX-TV report in 2019. Now, he says, his future has expanded. “[I’m] feeling like I’d
like another 15 years. I’m greedy now.
Story by Jennifer Nachbur
Photography by Andy Duback