Published November 24, 2020
Research by Ruogang Zhao, PhD, and Yun Wu, PhD, associate professors of biomedical engineering, may lead to the discovery of new drugs to treat pulmonary fibrosis, a severe lung disease that can be life-threatening.
Pulmonary fibrosis has many causes, including smoking, aging, environmental factors and viral infections, such as those associated with COVID-19. There is currently no cure, and the majority of drugs designed to treat it have failed clinical trials.
“The main obstacles to the development of anti-pulmonary fibrosis drugs are the slow progression of the disease and the high cost and large sample size needed for animal studies and clinical trials,” Zhao says.
Clinical trials are typically expensive and existing preclinical models are limited in their ability to study the role of inflammation, which is one of the major contributors to the disease.
In a new research project funded by a two-year, $920,000 grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health, Zhao and co-investigator Wu will develop a new preclinical model to study inflammation-induced fibrosis to better understand the causes of fibrosis disease and evaluate the therapeutic efficacy of potential drug candidates.
“We hope that our work will expedite the translation of drug candidates from the laboratory to clinics, and that this technological advancement will positively impact current practice to combat fibrotic diseases,” Zhao says. “Furthermore, since pulmonary fibrosis is one of the major sequela of COVID-19, it is possible that this research can help discover treatments for people infected with the disease and contribute to the battle against the pandemic.”
Zhao and his team are using microfabrication to create 3D patterns that are about the same diameter as a single human hair, called microtissues. An array of these microtissues allows improved throughput for testing of the drug candidates than with conventional preclinical models.
The microfabricated tissue array system can then be used to study the mechanism of inflammation-induced fibrosis and detect changes in the tissue stiffness, which is closely related to fibrosis progression or reversal under drug treatment.
“Ruogang’s research is an excellent example of how biomedical engineering directly impacts the lives of many people,” says Albert H. Titus, PhD, professor and chair of biomedical engineering. “He and Yun are developing new knowledge and tools that can improve drug development and ultimately lower costs. This is really exciting work.”