Researcher Profile: Scott Alper, PhD

Scott AlperSearching for Genetic Clues to COPD

A lifelong passion for science has led Scott Alper, PhD, through some of the country’s most prestigious research institutions, to his lab in Denver where today he is leading cutting-edge immunology projects that one day could yield dramatically different treatments for COPD as well as asthma.

In his first American Lung Association-sponsored study, Dr. Alper is conducting basic research to identify genes that specifically regulate inflammation in the lungs. “It is becoming increasingly clear what an important role inflammation has in COPD,” says Dr. Alper, Assistant Professor, Integrated Department of Immunology and Center for Genes, Environment, and Health at National Jewish Health. “We are rapidly screening genes that affect inflammation and bringing them into mouse models of lung disease to identify the genes that control lung inflammation,” he explains.

It is becoming increasingly clear what an important role inflammation has in COPD.

COPD and asthma share the characteristic that inflammation can help cause or worsen the disease. Dr. Alper and his team are investigating the possibility of modifying inflammation during the progression of the disease. Eventually, the results of the research may impact physicians’ ability to slow the progression of COPD and create new treatments for COPD and asthma. “Inflammation plays a major role in COPD, but if we could catch the inflammation early enough, we could try to prevent the scarring of the lung tissues that makes breathing difficult,” he says. “If we could then keep the inflammation from progressing, perhaps we could keep the disease from getting worse.”

While the work of Dr. Alper and other geneticists and immunologists is at the beginning of a long pipeline of research to be developed, he understands its potential power in creating new treatments and helping physicians prevent disease in the future.

“If we find gene variants that affect lung inflammation, maybe clinicians would be able to monitor at-risk patients more closely,” he explains. “For example, if you know that your patient who smokes has a high genetic risk of getting COPD, you might work even harder to get them to quit smoking. Or for any at-risk patient, we could seek prevention strategies.” An additional potential impact of Dr. Alper’s research is the development of drugs targeted toward specific genes, although that requires a very long, expensive process for any disease.

For people with COPD or asthma, Dr. Alper’s research holds the promise of specific strategies that envelop personalized medicine and treat each patient’s disease according to that person’s unique genetic makeup. It is a medical revolution that biomedical research continues to build toward day by day.

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