Physicians know what a healthy human lung looks like, but researchers have never before created a comprehensive map that specifically measures lung development from birth through childhood.
Now, researchers at University of Rochester Medical Center have launched a five-year effort to develop such a map. The project, called the Human Lung Molecular Atlas Program, or LungMAP, includes researchers from several other institutions and is supported by more than $20 million from the National Institutes of Health, $6.1 million of which was awarded to URMC.
With a detailed map of human lung development, health care providers will be able to more readily identify children who may be at risk for lung problems. For example, physicians know that infants who are born prematurely are more likely to develop emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in adulthood or later in life.
“But we don’t always know which ones, or how severe their complications will be,” said Gloria Pryhuber, M.D., professor of Pediatrics and Environmental Medicine and the study’s lead researcher at URMC. “So that’s what this is really all about — we need to know more about how the lung is formed and heals normally, in order to encourage pre-term infants to develop more normally, and to help adult lungs to heal from diseases like pneumonia and emphysema.”
In the coming months and years, researchers at URMC will collect lung tissue through a multi-state organ donor network. Researchers will analyze the samples through computerized tomography (CT) scans, reconstruct the lung samples in 3D for analysis, and process the tissue for further analysis down to the individual cell and gene level.
URMC researchers will then dig deeper into the function and development of infection-fighting white blood cells in the lungs, while colleagues at collaborating universities will analyze other aspects of the tissue.
Data generated from the LungMAP will be accessible to the public at www.lungMAP.net, allowing doctors and researchers all over the world to view the findings. For Pryhuber, who has a deep background in studying respiratory illnesses in infants and children, the project will additionally provide a base for future efforts to study lungs that have been affected by specific diseases.
“We have made great strides in improving our care and prevention of neonatal lung disease, but children still do suffer the effects of these diseases even as they grow into adults,” said Pryhuber. “So the LungMAP will tell us what goes right in healthy lung development. The next step would be to look at lung tissue where something has gone wrong and learn how to fix it.”