Breathe easier: Dr. Tong-Jun Lin aims to harness immune system to help cystic fibrosis and asthma patients
As many as 70 per cent of people with cystic fibrosis suffer from chronic lung infections. Antibiotics have little effect on Pseudomonas aeruginosa, the culprit bacterium. Because it is very difficult to treat, this infection can become entrenched, damaging the lungs, making it increasingly difficult to breathe and even threatening the patient’s life.
“We must find a way to boost immune response in these patients,” says Dr. Tong-Jun Lin, an immunology researcher at Dalhousie Medical School and the IWK Health Centre. And he’s doing just that, in collaboration with Dr. Brent Johnston, Canada Research Chair in Inflammation and Immunity at Dalhousie and the IWK.
The two scientists are pooling their immune system expertise to see if they can stimulate a super-charged immune response against Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
Tong-Jun is an expert in mast cells and macrophages. Mast cells are watchdogs that alert the immune system when there’s an invader, while macrophages overrun and eat the invaders. Meanwhile, Brent works with Natural Killer T-cells, white blood cells that just need the right commands to mount an aggressive defence.
“We think we can manipulate these different parts of the immune system to work more effectively together,” says Tong-Jun. “Early results of our experiments are promising.”
Tong-Jun is also studying how the immune system triggers asthma. “Allergens in the environment, like pollen, dust mites and animal dander, attach themselves to mast cells, which triggers the release of histamines,” he explains. “Histamines in turn trigger typical allergic responses like sneezing, wheezing, and inflammation.” He has discovered a new molecule involved in this response – and applied for a patent on his discovery. “By understanding the immune mechanism at work, we may be able to find a way to block it,” he says. “This could reduce the severity of asthma and prevent acute asthma attacks.”
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