USC Stem Cell scientist Ya-Wen Chen hopes to pioneer a new approach to regenerating damaged lung tissue, with support from a Catalyst Grant from the American Lung Association (ALA). The award provides $50,000 year for up to two years.

“For many patients with chronic lung diseases, the only available treatment is transplantation — a difficult, dangerous surgery that involves challenges ranging from the severe shortage of donor organs to immune rejection,” said Chen, who is an assistant professor of medicine, and stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Even patients who are lucky enough to receive donor organs only have a 10 to 20 percent survival rate at 10 years. If we can encourage these patients’ own cells to repair damage and heal their lungs, we could dramatically improve this prognosis.”

With this goal in mind, Chen is using human stem cells to generate rudimentary lung-like structures known as “lung bud organoids.” Within these organoids, Chen’s group will probe how a specific population of cells repairs the tiny gas-exchange interfaces called alveoli in damaged lungs.

Specifically, Chen is interested in a population of cells known as distal small airway epithelial progenitors or SAEPs, which could have the potential to improve lung function in patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A group of lung diseases that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, COPD affects at least 16 million Americans and is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. An additional 200,000 Americans are living with IPF, a progressive, incurable and often deadly disease that, for unknown reasons, causes scar tissue to form in the lungs, impeding breathing.

“Our ultimate goal is to leverage patient’s existing stem and progenitor cells to promote healing through a non-surgical, regenerative approach,” said Chen, a member of the USC Hastings Center for Pulmonary Research, as well as USC’s stem cell research center.

Chen is one of 98 scientists to receive research support from the ALA, which has committed $11.55 million total to support scientific investigations aimed at reducing the burden of lung disease.

“Despite the fact that the pandemic poses significant economic challenges,” said ALA President and CEO Harold Wimmer, “the American Lung Association is prioritizing research and significantly increasing award funding to help improve the lung health of all Americans.”

— Cristy Lytal