Denise Al Alam, PhD

Senior Research Training Fellowship: Studying Embryonic Lung Development May Lead to Treatment for Breathing Problems

Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) is a lung disease that occurs most often in babies who were born severely premature—more than 10 weeks before their due date. Babies with BPD have inflammation and scarring in the lungs. About 5,000 to 10,000 babies born in the United States each year have BPD. More babies today have BPD than 30 years ago because more very premature babies survive.

Denise Al Alam, PhD, is using her American Lung Association Senior Research Training Fellowship grant to study the molecular pathways of embryonic lung development. She hopes that the information she gains from this research will be useful in developing treatments for the severe breathing problems in premature babies with BPD.

She is focusing on two particular molecules involved in lung development: a growth factor called Fibroblast Growth Factor (FGF) 9, which is needed for the growth and development of several organs including the lung, and a protein called Pitx2 that sends signals that allow cells to grow and divide.

"By identifying the exact role of FGF9 and Pitx2 in lung development, we will have a better understanding of their value in developing new treatments for BPD," Dr. Al Alam says. In mice genetically engineered to have no FGF9 or Pitx2 specifically in the lung, Dr. Al Alam found that the lack of these molecules leads to abnormal lung development, but their exact role is still unknown. Also, her lab found that the lack of Pitx2 leads to the death of the mice in utero, before birth.

She notes that human adults with lung adenocarcinomas, a type of lung cancer, have increased levels of FGF9, but there have been no studies in human babies to determine the levels of either FGF9 or Pitx2.

Dr. Al Alam's grant took on a new urgency for her this year, when she had newborn twins who were born prematurely. "They were in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) at the beginning and were having a hard time breathing. So I realize more the importance to find cures for babies with breathing problems," she says.