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Meet our Researchers

Dr. Warren Lee, St. Michael’s Hospital

How zebrafish are leading to new influenza treatments

Influenza is one of the most common infectious causes of death in Ontario and a threat of a novel pandemic strain of the virus persists. There is only one class of drugs available for influenza and resistance has already been reported. Because the virus mutates constantly, vaccination is not always effective or rapidly available.

This has resulted in a critical need for new drugs to treat both seasonal and pandemic influenza. Most traditional approaches to identify potential drugs use isolated cells grown in dishes. But this is too simple, since isolated cells cannot mimic a whole animal. The compounds that are identified often later prove toxic when tested in animal models. To overcome these limitations, Dr. Warren is using zebrafish as a model organism for severe flu. These tiny fish are inexpensive and easy to grow in large numbers. He will screen libraries of novel compounds for agents that prevent flu-induced death.

“We have already established that the influenza virus can infect and kill zebrafish, and we are looking for new drugs that will rescue the infected zebrafish.”

Once promising drugs are found, they will see whether they also rescue mice infected with influenza. Drugs that protect both zebrafish and mice will then be studied in detail to determine how they work.

“We are the first to use zebrafish to screen for drugs against influenza.”

This project combines the advantages of rapid screening and the power of testing infections in an intact vertebrate.

Dr. Dina Brooks, University of Toronto

Let’s Boogie – bringing dance therapy to patients with COPD

When Dr. Dina Brooks finished physiotherapy school, she knew working in the field of respiratory care was her passion. It was an area that resonated with her because she felt it was here where she could impact patients’ lives the most. With this in mind, her graduate work focused on respiratory health.

The Lung Association has been supporting Dr. Brooks’ research for the past 20 years and with her new project, Let’s Boogie, underway, she couldn’t be more grateful. “To work with a funder who has an open mind and is willing to try something different is so important for a researcher. This is the only way we are able to try new techniques and determine which ones have a positive outcome for patients.”

Let’s Boogie is a dance therapy class designed for patients with COPD. Dr. Brooks had seen this type of therapy used in patients with Parkinson’s and she has studied it herself in patients with stroke. During those studies, she saw improvements in balance and life satisfaction. Given those findings, it seemed obvious to bring this type of therapy to the respiratory arena. This is the first time dance therapy is being used for patients with COPD.

Patients who are part of this study are finding the program to be very helpful not only during the one-hour class, but throughout the rest of their day. It gives them a sense of independence and joy when they are able to experience the freedom dance and movement give them. They all are able to work at their own pace with modified versions of all moves that the dance therapists offer. “With dance, these patients are able to live happier lives – and that is the most important thing,” says Dr. Brooks.

Dr. Brooks is thankful that donors of The Lung Association see the value in supporting lung health research that can have a lasting impact on patients. Lung health research is severely underfunded. Without donors, this type of work would not be possible.

“I just think when I go for a short run how I have to catch my breath. Imagine feeling like that all day – and sometimes all night – always struggling to catch your breath. We have to do everything and anything we can to relieve these symptoms of people who have difficulty breathing.”

Dr. Brooks is a researcher funded through our Breathing as One campaign that supports The Lung Association’s innovative research strategy. Based on the principles of collaboration, we will push beyond the traditional boundaries of lung research, leverage new knowledge and create the highest standards of treatments to attract the brightest medical minds.

Dr. Paul O’Byrne, McMaster University, St. Joseph’s Healthcare

Combining personal experience and research to control and treat asthma

World renowned for his research on asthma, Dr. O’Byrne is able to use his personal insight to this chronic disease, as he had severe asthma as a child during a time when no effective treatment options were available. He remembers all the problems associated with asthma such as the symptoms, missing school and the impact on his family. He vividly recalls having his head over pots of boiling water, as his parents tried using water vapour to loosen the mucus in his lungs.

The Lung Association recruited Dr. O’Byrne as the lead investigator in the Asthma Control in Canada Survey. His work on this study reconfirmed that much hasn’t changed around asthma control in the past 15 to 20 years, although medications are immensely effective and continue to improve.

“We are facing an asthma paradox,” says Dr. O’Byrne. He describes how the first thing a physician prescribes is a short-acting reliever medication, which the patient then believes is the most effective, using it only when necessary. But that direction and thinking needs to change. Patients need to take their medication regularly, even without an immediate benefit. The focus must be on the long-term outcome – controlled asthma.

Dr. O’Byrne remembers a young woman who was admitted to the emergency room one day with seizures. She looked like she was dying in front of their eyes. She had acute severe asthma, but the problem wasn’t the need to change her medication – it was that she wasn’t using it regularly. From that point on she did. Dr. O’Byrne has followed her as an outpatient for 20 years now, even seeing her children at appointments. For him, this story demonstrates the value of taking asthma medications regularly.

Most rewarding for Dr. O’Byrne has been twofold. It is being part of understanding the mechanisms by which asthma develops, and the fact that hospitalization and emergency room visits for people with acute severe asthma has reduced by half since 2002 due to more effective treatment options. Donors have helped make that possible.

“Donors are absolutely crucial to the changes we’ve had for asthmatics. Any advances in the future are dependent on donors. Resources are needed to test new drugs and to develop the careers of young scientists. Without that, we lose people who could make an immense contribution.”

Dr. Bernard Thébaud, Ottawa Research Hospital Institute

Helping premature babies breathe

Dr. Bernard Thébaud still remembers the time when he told a mother that her premature baby was dying from a lung disease and she asked: “Isn’t there anything you can do for my baby now?”

“That’s when I realized that I needed to move research findings quicker from the labs into treatments for patients,” recalls Dr. Thébaud, a neonatologist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and a senior scientist with the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute.

That baby had a genetic condition known as surfactant protein B deficiency. In the lungs, the surface of the tiny air sacs (alveoli), where oxygen goes into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide comes out, is coated in a thin layer that contains pulmonary surfactant.

Pulmonary surfactant prevents the collapse of the alveoli and plays a role in defending the lungs from bacteria and viruses. The lungs start making surfactant around 24 weeks into a pregnancy and produce adequate amounts at 35 weeks. But some babies inherit a genetic mutation that leads to a partial or complete lack of surfactant protein B. Although these babies are given an artificial surfactant and are put on a ventilator (breathing machine), the prognosis is poor; many babies die in their first few months.

Currently, there is no cure for this deficiency. The only effective treatment is a lung transplant; however, laboratory research shows promise.

Dr. Thébaud’s research into surfactant protein deficiency has the potential to save the lives of babies worldwide while also leading to discoveries for other incurable diseases such as cystic fibrosis.