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Discovery could improve the lives of premature babies

13 December 2008

Scientists funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) have identified a potential new avenue for altering lung development in the embryo which may help to improve the outcome for very premature babies. The researchers at Cardiff University, in collaboration with those at the Saban Research Institute at Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, have discovered a key player in early lung development which is a potential drug target for treating very premature babies with small, immature lungs. The research is published today (12 December 2008) in The Journal of Physiology. The work was carried out in the laboratories of Dr Daniela Riccardi and Professor Paul Kemp (School of Biosciences, Cardiff University, UK) in collaboration with Professor David Warburton (Saban Research Institute, Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, USA).

Dr. Riccardi said: "Within minutes of birth, a baby relies solely on its lungs to get the oxygen it needs. One of the reasons that the lives of very premature babies are in such dire jeopardy is that the final stages of lung development happen very late in pregnancy and so premature babies are born with immature lungs that struggle to take in enough oxygen. Under-developed lungs don’t absorb enough oxygen and premature babies with respiratory problems often develop chronic lung disease that may extend into adulthood. Through our research we have gained a better understanding of how lungs develop normally and so we can now begin to work out what happens when things go wrong, such as when a baby is born much too early. From the work we have published today, we now have a real possibility for fast-tracking new drugs for helping these very premature babies."

Along with their research associates Dr Brenda Finney and Dr William Wilkinson, Dr Riccardi and Professor Kemp have discovered that a molecule called CaR (calcium receptor) is a crucial factor in the control of lung development in the womb. CaR co-ordinates messages from within the growing fetus that instruct the lungs to develop thousands of channels and tiny air pockets. This complicated structure is what will ultimately allow oxygen to move from the air into the baby’s blood stream.

Professor Kemp said: "The really exciting thing about CaR is that there are already drugs available that can alter its function and, therefore, could modulate lung development. We know that CaR works by sensing calcium and we also know that there are already drugs available that are designed to regulate how calcium is used in the body. If we can show that one of these drugs can modulate the action of CaR in the lung, it could be used to mature the lungs of a very premature baby as it grows. Better still, an existing drug could potentially be approved much more quickly than a new one."

Professor Janet Allen, BBSRC Director of Research said: "It is exciting to see that BBSRC-funded research has the potential to improve the lives of thousands of very premature babies. These scientists have shown that by first asking questions about a fundamental biological process, the possibilities for understanding and treating devastating human disease can then be thrown wide open. This demonstrates the value of basic research in biology for delivering real life impact."

ENDS

Notes to editors

This work is published in The Journal of Physiology, "Regulation of mouse lung development by the extracellular calcium-sensing receptor, CaR" DOI:10.1113/jphysiol.2008.161687.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. www.bbsrc.ac.uk

About Cardiff University

Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities. 2008 marks the 125th anniversary of Cardiff University having been founded by Royal Charter in 1883. Today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Cardiff is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s leading research universities. Visit the University website at: www.cardiff.ac.uk

About Cardiff School of Biosciences

The Cardiff School of Biosciences addresses the major biological questions which face health and life scientists. The major research areas of the School are: biodiversity and ecology, connective tissue biology, environmental biochemistry and microbiology, mammalian genetics, molecular enzymology and entomology, and neuroscience cell biology. The School also houses the Common Cold Centre, the world’s only centre dedicated to researching and testing new medicines for treatment of the symptoms of flu and the common cold. The School achieved a one hundred per cent success in the national, independent assessment of university teaching quality.  The top ‘excellent’ grade was awarded to Pure and Applied Biology, Biochemistry, Anatomy and Physiology, and to the first and second year pre-clinical training for doctors and dentists.

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