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A collaboration between researchers at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, College of Public Health and Emory University’s Cystic Fibrosis Center recently was awarded a four-year grant that will lead to a better understanding of lung inflammation in cystic fibrosis patients. The team led by Balázs Rada, freshly tenured associate professor of infectious diseases in UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine will study how white blood cells called neutrophils contribute to lung disease in CF.

“In healthy people, neutrophils act as antimicrobial immune cells that fight pathogens by several mechanisms. In CF patients, however, neutrophils are unable to eliminate airway infections caused by a select group of microorganisms and contribute to lung damage,” said   Balázs Rada, principal investigator on the project. “Our goal here is to study one particular antimicrobial mechanism of neutrophils called neutrophil extracellular traps or NETs. NETs represent a powerful microbial trapping mechanism that also has the potential to carry out significant tissue damage. Our research will give a better understanding of the role of NETs in CF lung disease and lay down the basics for potential future NET-targeting therapies.”

Despite recent advances, CF still remains an incurable disease that affects 80,000 people worldwide. Lung complications are responsible for the majority of deaths in CF often characterized by chronic bacterial infections.

Researchers on the project include Arlene Stecenko associate professor of pediatrics and medicine, Marcus Professor of Pulmonology and director of the Emory+Children’s CF Care Center; Nael McCarty, Marcus Professor of CF and Director of Emory+Children's CF Center of Excellence; Rachel Linnemann, assistant professor of pediatrics and associate director at Emory+Children’s Pediatric CF Program; Joanna Goldberg, professor of microbiology at Emory; William  Hunt, director of the Emory Adult CF Program; and Hanwen Huang, biostatistician and assistant professor in UGA’s College of Public Health.

The study will be done in three parts. The first phase mainly performed at UGA examines how neutrophils isolated from healthy volunteers normally kill CF pathogens and how these processes are impaired in CF neutrophils obtained from Emory. Second, the contribution of NETs to lung disease will also be studied in CF mouse models at both UGA and Emory. Lastly, the team will follow a cohort of adolescent CF patients at the Emory CF Center over four years to link clinical symptoms to novel NET-related markers measured at UGA.

“CF teenagers represent a very unique patient cohort available here at Emory since these years witness the start and steepest decline in lung function of CF patients. Our collaborative effort leverages on the accessibility of this special patient population,” said Arlene Stecenko, lead Emory investigator on the grant.

“Although we have known for decades that neutrophils are clinically highly relevant to CF, their exact role in disease pathogenesis has not been studied intensely. Due to major recent advances in neutrophil biology, we hope to change this and move the field forward.” said Rada. “The assembled UGA-Emory team aims to establish the exact role of NETs in CF lung disease using this NIH grant support and the unique combination of expertise in NETs, neutrophils, CF microbiology, immunology and patient care.

The UGA College of Veterinary Medicine, founded in 1946, is dedicated to training future veterinarians, to conducting research related to animal and human diseases, and to providing veterinary services for animals and their owners. Research efforts are aimed at enhancing the quality of life for animals and people, improving the productivity of poultry and livestock, and preserving a healthy interface between wildlife and people in the environment they share. The College enrolls 114 students each fall out of more than 1,200 who apply. For more information, see www.vet.uga.edu.

The Emory+Children’s CF Center of Excellence, also known as CF@LANTA, is one the best comprehensive CF programs in the country and seeks excellent in research, clinical care, and education related to cystic fibrosis. For further information, see http://www.pedsresearch.org/research/centers/cf-air/overview/.