Carolyn Baglole, PhD

American Lung Association Scholar: COPD, Smoking, and Air Pollution

While most cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are caused by cigarette smoke, not all smokers develop the disease. "There is a lot of speculation that genetic factors play a role in determining which smokers get COPD," says Carolyn Baglole, PhD. "Even though quitting smoking significantly reduces the likelihood of developing COPD, it does not guarantee that chronic inflammation and lung damage associated with long-term tobacco use will not progress to lung disease."

Dr. Baglole is using an American Lung Association Biomedical Research Grant to help her understand the molecular basis of how cells regulate damage caused by cigarette smoke. The findings may one day lead to a better treatment for patients with COPD.

Her research focuses on how a cell receptor called the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (or AhR) can prevent inflammation and death in lung cells called fibroblasts in response to cigarette smoke. Fibroblasts are structural cells linked to chronic inflammation that is associated with the development of COPD. Death of these cells also may account for the loss of air sacs in the lungs associated with emphysema.

Dr. Baglole's previous research found that fibroblasts that are deficient in the AhR are very sensitive to cigarette smoke, and increase key inflammatory mediators. Her current research focuses on understanding how the AhR prevents fibroblasts from undergoing a death process known as apoptosis.

"If we can understand the molecular mechanism by which AhR can prevent inflammation and cell death in COPD, we may be able to find a way to increase this receptor's ability to impede or even prevent the progression of lung diseases associated with cigarette smoke," said Dr. Baglole, who hopes this research grant will help her apply for a larger government-funded grant. "COPD is currently incurable. With the knowledge that there are 80 million current and former smokers today in the U.S. alone and that there hasn't been a single major advance that has produced a significant increase in the lung disease survival rates, this research is long overdue."