Research Spotlight: Justin Oldham, M.D.
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As the director of the Interstitial Lung Disease Program at the University of California Davis, Justin Oldham, M.D., sees how patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) progress slowly and steadily over time. "IPF is a devastating disease," he says. "Most patients with IPF are on supplemental oxygen when I first evaluate them or will need to be in the near future."
About 140,000 Americans have been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. It is a disease marked by scarring, or fibrosis, in the lungs. Tissue deep in the lungs becomes thick, stiff and scarred. As the lung tissue becomes scarred, it interferes with a person’s ability to breathe. There is currently no cure. Current treatments, which patients must take two to three times a day, are aimed at preventing more lung scarring and relieving symptoms. They cannot remove scarring that has already occurred. About half of patients die in three to five years after being diagnosed. "We need more therapies to help slow disease progression, and hopefully stop it in its tracks," Dr. Oldham says.
With a grant from the American Lung Association, Dr. Oldham is using cutting-edge genomic technology to identify specific genes and gene variants associated with IPF disease activity. He is optimistic this research will lead to much-needed new treatments for the disease.
Dr. Oldham is studying variations in genes and identifying which ones are associated with IPF mortality. He is also looking at the process of gene expression, or what the gene produces. "We are studying the degree of expression in a large number of genes, and looking for patterns associated with IPF pulmonary function decline," he says. "If we can find a set of genes associated with that decline, it could identify pathways that we could potentially target with therapy."
There are a variety of environmental and genetic factors that are likely involved in the onset and progression of IPF, Dr. Oldham explains. "We are looking for a host of genes that contribute to IPF—not just one dominant gene."
The American Lung Association grant has been crucial in allowing him to complete his research, Dr. Oldham notes. "Genomic work is expensive—it requires advanced technology. I’m incredibly grateful to the Lung Association for allowing me to pursue this research. It has laid the foundation for me to write larger federal grants so I can continue with this work full-time."