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USA Health System
News Release
Mobile, Ala. (September 12, 2006)
Contact: Paul Taylor, (251) 461-1509

NIH Awards $8.5 Million to USA Center for Lung Biology

Dr. Mark Gillespie, Dr. Troy Stevens, Dr. Mary Townsley, Dr. Judy King, Dr. Songwei Wu at a recent (today) news conference announcing the largest research grant in the university's history. The $8.5 million award will fund basic research looking at novel therapies to better care for pulmonary patients. (From left to right)
The University of South Alabama Center for Lung Biology announced today the largest research award in the university's 43-year history - an $8.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue world-class pulmonary research in Mobile.
NIH awards are made through a competitive process that scores each grant proposal based solely on its scientific merit. NIH ranked USA's grant proposal the highest among all program project grant (PPG) applications focused on pulmonary diseases.
This grant is a renewal of an NIH PPG grant that was awarded in 2001, which at the time was the largest grant in USA's history. PPG's are a special type of NIH research award that promote synergy among scientists to accelerate discovery. This particular PPG is a single grant award that provides funding for four interrelated projects and three core research labs.
During research funded by the previous PPG, researchers at USA demonstrated that lung endothelial cells behave and function differently depending on their exact location in the lung. Prior to the research at USA, differences in lung endothelial cells were not widely recognized. Research in the current PPG will build on the progress made in the previous funding cycle.
"This award allows us to continue cutting-edge research to better understand lung disease and, as a research team, to work collaboratively toward developing treatment programs and novel therapies to better care for pulmonary patients in our region and beyond," said Dr. Troy Stevens, who is the principal investigator for the PPG award and also leads the center.
According to Stevens, all research projects are translational by design - meaning great emphasis is placed on quickly incorporating the new data and new discoveries made in the labs to develop new therapies and drugs for use in patient care.
The first scientific project is led by Stevens and examines the basic mechanisms responsible for permeability within the blood-gas barrier of the lungs. This important process is responsible for supplying oxygen essential for human life. Stevens and his team of researchers will study the harmful effects of bacterial toxins on the blood-gas barrier, which is the leading cause of lung disease. The most likely health condition that will be impacted by this research is acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Currently, an effective treatment for this condition is lacking. Approximately 40 percent of patients who contract ARDS will die from the disease - underscoring the need for more research and better treatment.
Dr. Mark Gillespie leads the research on the second project investigating the impact of free radicals on lung function. In the lung, free radicals trigger decreased cell division and pulmonary cell death, along with the loss of pulmonary capillaries. Gillespie's team will explore possible ways to develop potential therapies that can prevent oxidant injury. Mitochondria, commonly referred to as "cellular power plants," are specialized structures that are responsible for producing energy within the cell. Mitochondria have their own DNA that differs from DNA found in the nucleus of cells. Gillespie's research holds potential to improve the care of many diseases linked to the damaging effect free radicals have on the lungs, including cystic fibrosis, emphysema and lung cancer.
In the third project led by Dr. Songwei Wu, researchers will examine pulmonary inflammation that occurs in patients with sickle cell disease. In these patients, the shape of their red blood cells changes from round to a crescent or sickled contour. These changes negatively impact the pulmonary microcirculation in the lung, leading to a condition called acute chest syndrome (ACS). ACS is the second leading cause of hospitalization in sickle cell patients and also causes 25 percent of premature deaths in patients with sickle cell disease. Dr. Wu's team is examining the chain of cellular events that are involved in ACS and in other types of pulmonary injuries. Their goal is to better understand these complex interactions and identify new targets for pharmacologic therapies.
Dr. Mary Townsley is leading the fourth project, which is examining the properties of three endothelial cell barriers, to determine how these barriers are compromised by inflammation or acute lung injury. In her work, she is seeking to better understand how a series of cellular events and unique characteristics impact the permeability of arterial, capillary and venule endothelial cell barriers. Townsley's research targets two medical conditions * congestive heart failure (CHF) and acute lung injury (ALI).
CHF is a condition in which the heart is unable to pump enough blood to other organs in the body. This causes the blood returning to the heart to pool, or collect, causing edema or swelling of tissue. CHF also causes fluid to collect in the lungs, which causes patients to have trouble breathing.
ALI results from acute pulmonary edema and inflammation. It can develop from underlying conditions like pneumonia, infection and traumatic injury. Currently, there is a high mortality rate in patients who develop ALI because treatment options are extremely limited and in many cases ineffective.
"The high quality of work and research productivity that occurs at our medical school is validated by the investment the National Institutes of Health has made here," said Dr. Samuel J. Strada, interim dean of the USA College of Medicine. "At a time when the NIH research budget is undergoing dramatic budget cuts, competition for scientific research is extremely competitive," added Strada, who is also a scientist.
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Date last changed: September 12, 2006 3:10 PM