Featured: The Lungs


There’s nothing worse than struggling to breathe. It is such a desperate a feeling that it is used in torture techniques. Unfortunately, many patients with lung disease struggle to breathe regularly. Too many people die gasping for breath.

The lungs are a complex organ with many components that must work together perfectly to function just right. It’s amazing how well it all works, most of the time. But with such a crucial but fragile organ, and one so exposed to the outside world with all of its dangers, there are lots of ways for things to go wrong. In the end, all lung diseases involve the same basic problem, an inability to take in oxygen and blow off carbon dioxide: “I run out of breath quickly.” “Like I was drowning.” “Like being strangled.” “I can’t catch my breath.” “I just can’t get enough air.”

The Pulmonary Center at BU is working to determine just how lungs work when healthy, exactly what changes result in specific lung diseases, and how to prevent or reverse these changes to maintain or restore lung health. Breakthroughs in Pulmonary Center laboratories lead to new therapies, novel diagnostics, innovative prevention strategies, and improved uses of medical approaches to combating lung disease.

The Pulmonary Center

The Pulmonary Center at BU is dedicated to research combating lung disease. Pulmonary researchers here are elucidating how the healthy lung works, and what cellular and molecular processes go wrong to result in disease.

BU has been generating groundbreaking insight into the lungs and lung diseases for over half a century. In addition to making discoveries, research training is a major Pulmonary Center mission, and the Pulmonary Center at BU has produced leaders who continue the fight against lung disease from important positions around the world.

Here on the BU medical campus, the Pulmonary Center nucleates and empowers lung-related research. It houses and fosters collaboration among investigators that study lung biology and pulmonary disease. Research and training in the Pulmonary Center partners with the clinical efforts of the Section of Pulmonary, Allergy, Sleep, and Critical Care Medicine, and their constant two-way interactions make each unit stronger. Other important allies include the Section for Computational Biomedicine and the Center for Regenerative Medicine, which were originally envisioned and created by Pulmonary Center faculty, and which continue to make the fight against lung disease their emphasis.

Pulmonary research at BU is making discoveries that decrease suffering from pulmonary disease.

Conserved pathways that are key to respiratory health

A major focus of research in the Pulmonary Center is lung development.

The genesis of a complete set of lungs from what was previously just a tiny bulge in the esophagus is awe-inspiring in its complexity and beauty. Pulmonary researchers at BU have contributed enormously to today’s understanding of the intricate cellular events and molecular signals that orchestrate these remarkable processes. Their discoveries have been, and continue to be, immediately and directly relevant to lung development abnormalities, such as congenital lung diseases driven by exposures or deficiencies during pregnancy.

In addition, ongoing research is demonstrating that these same pathways do so much more. Indeed, dysregulations of pathways that are developmental in origin are emerging as central components of a great many lung diseases in both children and adults, including asthma, lung cancer, emphysema, and pulmonary fibrosis.

Finally, discoveries related to lung development have prospects for radicalizing new treatment approaches for diverse lung disease. The directed differentiation of stem cells into specialized lung cells, as dictated by lung development programs defined in Pulmonary Center labs, has great promise for regenerative medicine and the hopes for repairing injured lungs and curing pulmonary disease.

Essential to protection, but an agent of disease

The lungs are by necessity incredibly exposed to the outside environment, including the ambient air and all of its contaminants such as viruses, bacteria, allergens, and pollution. Because of this, the lungs require amazingly sophisticated and specialized systems of immune defense.

This immunity does a remarkable job most of the time, as lungs are constantly challenged but usually healthy. However, they are insufficient to prevent infections from being frequent and sometimes severe. Acute lower respiratory infections like pneumonia and influenza are the greatest burden of disease worldwide, the leading cause of death due to infection in the US, and the number one most common reason that American children get hospitalized.

In addition, when these same immune cells that protect the lung from infection become inappropriately activated, are mistakenly routed to attack the wrong things, or are ineffectively shut down when challenges wane, the immune processes themselves become driving factors for pulmonary disease. Aberrant lung immunity causes or exacerbates the acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pulmonary fibrosis, sarcoidosis, lung cancer, pulmonary hypertension, cystic fibrosis, and others.

Researchers in the Pulmonary Center are discovering the cells and molecules that protect the lungs from infection, and the changes in those pathways that foster disease instead. These discoveries are helping to differentiate subjects at increased risk and to identify new pathways to target for preventing and curing pneumonia, lung injury, asthma, and other lung diseases.

High throughput yields big results

Advances in biology and medicine have resulted in the development of newer approaches to patient studies that are extraordinarily high-throughput.

Whereas science in prior years tended to be built incrementally, one observation per patient and one patient at a time, today’s Pulmonary Center investigators collect and interrogate huge quantities of data: thousands, tens of thousands, even millions of observations from a single patient sample; thousands, tens of thousands, even millions of people included in a study. These high-throughput approaches are providing unprecedented windows into lung disease.

Pulmonary Center researchers use Genome-wide Association Studies (GWAS) to analyze all of the genes, including millions of variations across thousands of subjects, to identify which gene variations influence disease susceptibility or progression. Genetic factors are being discovered which impact asthma, COPD, and the decline in lung function that typically occurs with aging. Bioinformatics approaches allow tens of millions of pieces of data to be collected from a single biological specimen collected from a patient or other subject, and the computational analyses of such huge data sets yield unbiased and powerful new views of disease processes. Innovative applications of these approaches drive deeper insights into pneumonia, COPD, and lung cancer.

The widespread use of electronic medical records has led to massive administrative databases containing medical information on millions of patients, and Pulmonary Center researchers are pioneering investigations of such databases to improve the prevention and treatment of pulmonary and critical care diseases, especially for intensive care unit issues (like ARDS) and for lung cancer.

Support research to prevent and cure lung disease

If you would like to help fight lung disease, please give online and select Pulmonary Research Fund from the Fund drop-down menu, mid-page. This will ensure your donation goes directly to the Pulmonary Center for their battle against lung disease.

To speak with someone in more detail about giving opportunities to support Pulmonary Research, please contact the Boston University School of Medicine Development Office via email at busmdev@bu.edu or via phone at 617-358-9535. Thank you.

Sample giving opportunities

  • Create and name an endowed professorship for the faculty of the program: $1.25 million for an assistant professor, $2.5 million for a full professor
  • Endow a research fund: $100,000
  • Endow a scholarship for a BUSM student: $100,000
  • Endow a postdoctoral fellowship: $100,000
  • Create a current-use fellowship award: $10,000
  • Provide unrestricted support as a member of the BUSM Dean’s Club: $1,500 and above