High tech detectives screen thousands of genes, proteins to solve puzzle of lung disease

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL (Oct. 18, 2006) -- Recent advances in computer and imaging technology allow the scanning of tens of thousands of genes and proteins in little more than a blink of an eye. This high speed technology has already produced advances in the understanding of disease, including lung disease, and the already blistering pace is picking up.

To take stock of this quickly changing field, scientists and doctors will gather at The American Physiological Society meeting, "Physiological genomics and proteomics of lung disease," to be held Nov. 2-5 in Fort Lauderdale.

"Up until a few years ago, we investigated one protein, one gene, at a time," said Bruce R. Pitt, of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, and a member of the conference organizing committee. "Now we have more robust gene profiling techniques, better apparatus and better means of statistical analysis," said Brooke T. Mossman, of the University of Vermont College of Medicine, another member of the conference organizing committee.

Lung diseases not well understood

Lung diseases are among the most common and recognizable to the public: asthma, emphysema, lung cancer, cystic fibrosis and pulmonary fibrosis, to name a few. But the lung is a very complicated organ and these diseases are not well understood, Pitt said. One puzzle has been why, when different people are exposed to toxic agents like asbestos or cigarette smoke, some develop disease and others don't.

"Environmental agents such as asbestos cause disease, but there is also a genetic susceptibility," Mossman explained. Because individuals react differently to the same exposure, progress in the diagnosis and treatment of these diseases has been slowed. If researchers can find the genes that make some people susceptible, it will greatly enhance progress toward early detection, treatment and a cure, she said.

Using cutting edge methods, researchers are now finding molecules, known as biomarkers, associated with particular diseases. In most instances, it is not yet clear whether they cause the disease or are simply associated with it. But researchers hope these biomarkers can be used to

  • predict who will develop a disease
  • direct earlier treatment to those at risk
  • develop animal models to study the development of the disease and find out what role, if any, the biomarkers play

Some biomarkers have already been found and put to use, Mossman noted. For instance, Harvey Pass and colleagues at the NYU School of Medicine found that the protein, osteopontin, predicts who will develop mesothelioma, a tumor of the lung cavity, after being exposed to asbestos. Best of all, the marker can be detected with a blood test.

Another scientist, Jan Schnitzer of the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center in San Diego, has developed a technique that allows the study of key genes and proteins of the lung's blood vessels without removing them from the lung, Pitt said. When researchers remove these cells from the lung, they can behave in unpredictable ways, a shortcoming to research in this area up to this point, he added.

Once scientists have identified the molecules that are crucial to a disease, said Pitt, they become the target for new therapeutic interventions such as drugs, he said.

Among the symposia that will take place at the conference are the genomic and proteomic approaches to

  • studying lung disease
  • developing therapeutic targets for new drugs
  • understanding airway and vascular disease
  • understanding acute lung injury and inflammation

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The media can attend this fascinating conference by contacting Christine Guilfoy. For reporters who cannot attend, arrangements can be made in many cases for telephone interviews with scientists. Please go to http://www.the-aps.org/meetings/aps/ftlauderdale/index.htm for more about the program.

The American Physiological Society was founded in 1887 to foster basic and applied bioscience. The Bethesda, Maryland-based society has 10,500 members and publishes 14 peer-reviewed journals containing almost 4,000 articles annually.

APS provides a wide range of research, educational and career support and programming to further the contributions of physiology to understanding the mechanisms of diseased and healthy states. In 2004, APS received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.


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