Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine have received an $8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the role of the barrier functions of the skin, gut and airway in asthma and allergic diseases. Researchers say understanding the role of the cells that line these tissues—epithelial cells— may help prevent and treat respiratory illnesses in the future.
“The epithelial cells are critical for forming a barrier between the organism and its environment,” says principal investigator Michael Holtzman, MD, Washington University pulmonologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “The reaction of these cells to the environment can determine whether the host develops a normal immune response or an inflammatory disease process. We want to figure out how these reactions might move in a helpful direction and provide protection against the environment, or in a harmful direction, leading to inflammatory diseases such as asthma.”
The NIH grant supports a three-pronged investigation into the following:
- (1) How airway epithelial cells use proteins called interferons to protect against viral infection
- (2) How airway epithelial cells get converted to over-produce mucus in the airways, a major cause of illness and death in patients with asthma and allergic disease
- (3) How epithelial cells in the skin might contribute to asthma.
“We are investigating the broad role of the epithelial barriers in the development of inflammatory airway disease. Our goal is an understanding of how the epithelial barrier normally protects us but abnormally causes a remarkably common and serious type of disease.” — Michael Holtzman, MD