Two University of Alabama at Birmingham Researchers Awarded American Lung Association Grants

Lung health research is more important than ever. Never have we faced so many challenges to our lung health, including COVID-19, vaping and smoke from increased wildfires. Today, the American Lung Association in Alabama announced that Sixto Leal, M.D., Ph.D. from the University of Alabama at Birmingham was awarded a COVID-19 Respiratory Virus Research Award and Kayla Goliwas, Ph.D., also from the University of Alabama at Birmingham was awarded a Catalyst Award.

Leal’s project focuses on the impact of SARS-CoV-2 immune dysregulation on antifungal immunity. Unlike most invasive mold infections, COVID Associated Pulmonary Aspergillosis (CAPA) occurs in individuals with otherwise intact immune systems. This suggests novel biological mechanisms make people susceptible to fungal infection. Leal’s team seeks to evaluate whether immune responses targeting intracellular viruses (viruses that live inside host cells) compromise the ability of the immune system to simultaneously control mold infection. Overall, Leal’s goal is to better understand why these infections occur in order to prevent their development in patients with an emerging viral respiratory infection. “As an Early-Stage Investigator, the American Lung Association support has proven critical for my lab to explore and find new ways to prevent the development of secondary mold infections in patients with severe COVID,” Leal shares.

Goliwas’s project aims to combine immune checkpoint therapy and interlukin-6 targeting to enhance the anti-tumor immune response. The treatment of non-small cell lung cancer continues to be a major clinical challenge, with current immune targeted therapies showing clinical benefit in only a subset of patients. Combining therapies targeting infiltrating immune suppressive cells, which promote tumor progression, and clinically utilized immune checkpoint inhibitors may increase the body’s anti-tumor immune response. “Therefore, this treatment strategy is of great interest. I am excited to start this project and incredibly grateful to the American Lung Association for this award and their continued support of lung cancer research,” remarks Goliwas.

“Here in Alabama, we face lung health challenges every day like higher smoking/vaping rates and high lung cancer/COPD rates. In addition, more than 763,000 people in our state are living with chronic lung disease,” said Ashley Lyerly, senior director of advocacy in Alabama for the American Lung Association. “We are excited for Leal and Goliwas to join the American Lung Association Research Team to help improve lung health here in Alabama and across the nation.” 

In the 2022-2023 grants cycle, the Lung Association is funding $13.2 million for more than 130 lung health research grants. For this round of funding, the organization placed a greater focus on strategic partnerships with key organizations like American Thoracic Society and CHEST, and grants that focus on equity like the Harold Amos Scholar.

Research projects funded by the Lung Association are carefully selected through rigorous scientific review and awardees represent the investigation of a wide range of complex issues. Awards were given in eight different categories: ALA/AAAAI Allergic Respiratory Diseases Award, ALA/ATS/CHEST Foundation Respiratory Health Equity Research Award, Catalyst Award, COVID-19 Respiratory Virus Research Award, Dalsemer Award, Innovation Award, Lung Cancer Discovery Award, and Public Policy Research Award. 

The Lung Association’s Nationwide Research Program includes the Awards and Grants Program, and also our Airways Clinical Research Network, the nation's largest not-for-profit network of clinical research centers dedicated to asthma and COPD treatment research.

For more information about the new grant awardees and the entire American Lung Association Research Team, visit

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For more information, contact:

Jill Smith
[email protected]

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