Lin-Feng Chen, PhD

American Lung Association Scholar: Asthma

Inflammation is the body's response to damage or infection. It can help the body heal, and trigger an immune system response against foreign pathogens. Normally, the immune system automatically turns off the inflammation once the danger is past. But in some diseases, such as asthma, the inflammation doesn't turn off.

Lin-Feng Chen, PhD, is studying a protein called NF-kappa B, which controls genes that cause inflammation. This protein acts like a molecular switch that can be turned on and off as needed. When it is turned on, it moves into the cell's nucleus and sets off proteins that cause inflammation. With the help of an American Lung Association Biomedical Research Grant, Dr. Chen has identified a molecular code that controls the activity of NF-kappa B.

With chronic asthma, and with some cancers, NF-kappa B is continuously activated. "It can't be turned off—the signal is on all the time," says Dr. Chen. "This causes the chronic inflammation seen in asthma."

Dr. Chen's team found that by adding small chemical groups to the protein, it is degraded, and the inflammation signal turns off. This process is called post-translational modification. "Using these chemical groups is very important in fine-tuning the immune response and inflammatory response of NF-kappa B," he says. He is trying to identify different chemical groups that could modify NF-kappa B, and determine what kinds of effects they are having on the protein. He plans to study how post-translational modifications affect NF-kappa B activity both under normal and diseased conditions. Understanding how to turn off the protein could lead to new therapies to treat the underlying inflammation in asthma.

With the American Lung Association grant, Dr. Chen was able to continue to support a post-doctoral researcher for his lab. He says, "Without the grant, we wouldn't have been able to keep him in the lab, and we wouldn't have made so much progress so quickly."