New Program Breathes Life Into Lung Research

More Cohesive Approach Builds on UR Strength, Refines Focus

June 19, 2003

In keeping with its mission to expand research, the University of Rochester Medical Center has launched a Lung Biology and Disease Program that unites a dozen top scientists from various departments onto one floor of the UR's newest building at the west end of the campus. The program, which also serves as an umbrella for as many as 40 researchers, will be fully operational by June. Recruitment of new faculty, and some construction and laboratory setups will continue throughout the year.

The new program focuses attention on the lungs and related, modern-day health concerns: toxic exposures due to pollution and chemicals; asthma and other chronic lung ailments; respiratory infections; lung cancer. It will allow the scientists - once separated geographically and by professional discipline - to work more effectively as they investigate lung disease from the molecular stage to how it strikes patients, young and old, and the best treatments on the horizon.

"When you're interested in the disease process, understanding the whole picture is critical," says Deborah A. Cory-Slechta, Ph.D., Dean for Research and director of the Aab Institute of Biomedical Sciences at the UR. "This is a group of very talented physicians and researchers who were interactive already, but the intense, team-based approach will allow them to take advantage of what goes on in each others' labs in a much more dynamic way."

Richard Phipps, Ph.D., professor of Environmental Medicine, Oncology, Microbiology, Immunology and Pediatrics, has been appointed director of the Lung Biology and Disease Program. Phipps, whose research for 19 years at the UR has focused on lung disease and immunology, has a patent pending on a new way of immunizing against a serious infection that afflicts patients with cystic fibrosis and HIV.

"Each organ has its own truly unique aspects in terms of how it gets injured and how it is repaired," Phipps says. "We think it's going to be very productive to focus on the lung from many different angles, as opposed to the approach of studying diseases only at a fundamental level and then applying that knowledge to the lung."

Supporting lung biology research makes sense for a number of reasons:

  • The UR has been a leader in this field for years. In the 1980s, for instance, scientists here were instrumental in developing what is now a standard therapy for premature infants, a liquid medication called surfactant that helps tiny, underdeveloped lungs work better. More recently, in environmental medicine, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded the Medical Center (as one of five sites nationally) an $8 million grant to study the link between exposure to urban air particles and poor health. The association between air pollution and increased death rates is well documented, but now scientists are racing to identify which particles are toxic and why they cause lung disease.
  • A cohesive approach will raise the UR's competitive stature and boost funding opportunities. For example, in a visit this month to the National Institutes of Health, Phipps learned of new funding for programs to combat bioterrorism. The UR will pursue grants to investigate how infectious agents find their way to the lungs and the consequences of the toxic exposure. The World Trade Center disaster has also magnified interest into the harm done by inhaled particles.
  • The combined brainpower of cell biologists, immunologists and clinicians should result in new treatments. The lung program will maintain close ties with Strong Memorial Hospital's pulmonary and critical-care divisions, and will give the Medical Center greater access to the newest drugs being tested in clinical trials. A state-of-the-art facility in the basement of the new research building will also open avenues in gene therapy and other modern approaches to lung disease.

Another goal is to recruit new scientists and to encourage mentoring between senior faculty and young researchers. The program will conduct a seminar series and research-in-progress training, as a way to promote regular interactions among lung specialists.

At this point, the lung biology program is funded by existing research grants, including a $1.5 million training grant, directed by Mark Frampton, M.D., for pre-and post-doctoral students that was renewed by the NIH late last year. In addition, the NIH has invited a group of pediatric lung researchers, led by Frank Gigliotti, M.D., to apply for money to investigate the disease process that causes pneumocystic pneumonia, a very active area of research nationally.

Mark Utell, M.D., professor of Medicine in pulmonary and critical care, and co-director of the EPA Center, says the UR is smart to capitalize on a workplace culture that promotes collaboration. "Having the ability to convene top faculty from pediatrics, oncology, pulmonary and environmental medicine into tightly-knit, new laboratories, will position the university for great progress," he says.

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