Flinders Medical Centre Foundation
Flinders Medical Centre Foundation


Looking At The Changes In The Lung In Asthma And COPD

How Does Bronchiolitis Lead To Asthma?  

Boost For Child Health Research

Looking At The Changes In The Lung In Asthma And COPD
First Published: Investigator - August 2009

Researchers at Flinders Medical Centre are exploring the enzymes that lead to the constriction of the airways in asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) with the hope of creating better outcomes for sufferers.

Both asthma and COPD are characterised by inflammation in the lungs that is often a reaction to environmental factors or an infection which triggers ‘attacks’.

These conditions can cause breathing difficulties with symptoms like coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath as the airways constrict and limit airflow.

Unlike asthma, the damage caused by the inflammation in the lungs in COPD is irreversible and can get progressively worse over time.

“Asthma and COPD are also characterised by changes in the function and structure of the lungs,” said Associate Professor Rainer Haberberger from Anatomy and Histology at Flinders University.

Changes within the lungs’ blood vessels in these disorders can result in pulmonary hypertension - a reduction of blood flow in the lungs.

“There is some evidence that suggest these changes play an important role in the development of inflammatory airway disease, but we do not know exactly what role they take as this has not been extensively explored,” he said.

This is because the signalling pathways within cells that initiate this constriction of the lungs’ blood vessels are not fully understood.

Our cells use signalling pathways to pass messages along that activate certain functions within cells.

Assoc Prof Haberberger’s research points to the involvement of the sphingosine kinase 1 (SK1) pathway which triggers the creation of a lipid called sphingosine 1-phosphate (S1P), which is involved in controlling lung function.

“We predict that this SK1 and S1P pathway is involved in the vascular changes that accompany pulmonary inflammation in asthma and COPD,” said Assoc Prof Haberberger.

“If we are correct, this pathway could play a crucial role in the inflammation that characterise these diseases and create a promising target for better treatments for patients.”

How Does Bronchiolitis Lead To Asthma?
First Published: Investigator - February 2007

How does infant Bronchiolitis caused by the Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) lead to the development of asthma and persistent wheezing? Scientists at Flinders Medical Centre are attempting to unlock the answer to this question which has been of interest to researchers around the world for many years.

RSV Bronchiolitis is a very common illness usually contracted by infants during their first two years. It exhibits common cold like symptoms such as shortness of breath and coughing and in many infant cases the severity is such that hospitalisation is required.

Currently there is no specific treatment or vaccine for RSV Bronchiolitis. Those who develop this disease are generally cared for in a supportive manner similar to the treatment of a severe cold or flu with rest and oxygen supply if blood-oxygen levels drop too low.

“The natural course of this virus is normally only a week or two,” said Dr Dani-Louise Bryan, from the department of Critical Care Medicine. “However, there is a significant chance that children who contract RSV Bronchiolitis will go on to develop asthma or persistent wheezing.”

In past research Dr Bryan found an increase of a hormone like substance called prostaglandin (PGE2), which is triggered by the immune system to defend lung cells that have been exposed to the RSV virus by causing inflammation within the lung.

However, Dr Bryan has found that this defensive action can go too far, leading to the damage of healthy tissues and cells that aren’t infected. It is thought that this damage of healthy lung cells, to try and clear the virus, could be what leads to the development of asthma and persistent wheeze later in life.

“If the lungs are damaged when the patient is very young it seems that there is a predisposition to hyper-responsive lungs, causing breathing difficulties throughout their lives” said Dr Bryan. “With further investigation of PGE2 our team at Flinders hopes to pin point at what point this inflammatory response to RSV should be stopped.”

This research could lead to the development of a therapeutic agent that can modify the body’s responses to RSV where necessary and reduce healthy lung tissue damage.

Boost For Child Health Research

Researchers at Flinders Medical Centre will use the first machine of its kind in South Australia to diagnose and treat childhood diseases such as asthma and eye disease.

The $500,000 instrument is known as a Linear Ion Trap mass spectrometer and is the only one of its kind in South Australia. It is used in the study of proteins.

The mass spectrometer works by identifying proteins that are involved in the formation of disease. Once identified, these proteins are used to diagnose diseases or they are targeted in the treatment of a disease.

Researchers separate individual proteins and digest them with an enzyme to produce smaller fragments known as peptides. The mixture of peptides is then separated and analysed by the mass spectrometer.

The mass spectrometer fragments the peptides and measures the mass of these fragments. The data acquired by the mass spectrometer can be searched against large databases of proteins to identify the protein and the unknown disease.

Head of the Flinders Proteomic Facility Dr Tim Chataway said the mass spectrometer is a major addition to proteomic research at Flinders.

The mass spectrometer was funded through a $300,000 grant from Variety the Children’s Charity, the Child Health Research Institute and the FMC Foundation.

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