Zea Borok, MD, professor of medicine, chief of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine and director of the Hastings Center for Pulmonary Research at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, will be tackling ambitious research on lung cell regeneration, thanks to a multimillion grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). The seven-year, $6.9 million grant will support research that could translate into new treatments for common lung diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Borok is exploring how cells in the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs where gas exchange takes place, regenerate.

“Without alveolar cells, you can’t breathe properly, or you can go into respiratory failure and die. That’s the endpoint of a lot of common lung diseases,” Borok said.

Borok’s research program is using different methods, including stem cell research, to learn more about how these cells are maintained and repair themselves.

“Understanding the mechanisms that promote — or prevent — alveolar epithelial cell regeneration will provide valuable insight into how the lungs repair themselves after injury and could open the door to new therapies for lung diseases like pulmonary fibrosis,” Borok said.

Pulmonary fibrosis, which primarily affects people 50 years of age and older, is a progressive disease that causes scarring in the lungs. Symptoms include shortness of breath or a dry cough. Its cause is unknown.

“The median survival rate for pulmonary fibrosis is three to five years, and current treatments are limited. New drugs have been developed that will stabilize, but not cure, the condition. Lung transplantation is the only other option. There is a tremendous need for new therapies,” Borok said.

The NHLBI’s R35 grant program, which was launched in 2016, offers stable multiyear funding for emerging and outstanding researchers. By funding an investigator’s overall research program rather than a specific project, the grant is designed to provide more opportunities for pursuing novel research. USC is one of four institutions in California to be awarded an R35 grant from the NHLBI in 2017.

“This generous grant from the NIH is a recognition of Dr. Borok’s exceptional contributions to alveolar epithelial cell research, and it will enable her to chart new territory in this field of study,” said Rohit Varma, MD, MPH, dean of the Keck School of Medicine and director of the USC Gayle and Edward Roski Eye Institute. “We are looking forward to seeing where the science takes her.”

— Erica Rheinschild