RALEIGH — Scientific discoveries often require years of methodical, painstaking research, involving countless tests, reformations and re-tests of hypotheses.
And that pretty accurately describes Dr. Ken Adler’s work at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. For more than a decade, the professor of cell biology has been working to find a drug that would slow the overzealous movement of cells into unwanted areas—a process most commonly known as inflammation.
But it’s how he found out about a potential medical breakthrough of his drug that makes this story unique. His colleagues burst into his office and asked him to look at the lab mice because something was happening. The mice, once seemingly near death, were active and healthy.
“I think I was busy doing something because I told them I can’t come down to the animal room,” recalls Adler, as he sits at the desk in his office. The cell biologist says it was the exact same place where his colleagues found him that day.
“I asked if they could shoot some video, because after all, everybody has a phone that shoots video,” Adler adds, laughing.
And indeed, Dr. Qi Yin, a research associate on the project, and one of the people who announced the news in the office, had his phone with him.
“When I saw the animals getting better I wanted to share the good news with everyone so I shot the video with this phone,” says Yin, as he pulls his cell phone out of his lab coat. "I know it’s not professional, but I was really, really, fond of the animals getting better. We had done a really good job.”
Only a few days before, the mice were close to death, infected with acute respiratory distress syndrome—an inflammatory disease.
Dr. Adler pulls up some photos and videos on his computer screen to explain. The image shows five mice in a plastic tub. They are huddled in the corner, eyes closed, breathing rapidly, fur standing up straight. They are not moving.
“These are not very happy mice because they are very sick,” explains Adler, as he points out the lack of activity and labored breathing. “The mice become a model for acute respiratory distress syndrome because you inject a substance into the mice so they contract ARDS. It’s a very narrow window after that to test therapies because it’s over in 72 hours: either the mice survive or they don’t.”
Adler then reaches down to move the computer mouse and change the screen to reveal Dr. Yin’s video. It was shot after the mice received two treatments with the drug labeled Bio 11006. It’s the drug Adler and his teams discovered more than a decade ago and have continued experimenting with.
“The medication is delivered through inhalation and look at that: they are moving around the cage, their eyes are bright, hair no longer standing up," Adler says shaking his head in amazement despite having seen the video countless times. “I’m still totally blown away by this.”
The researchers discovered a peptide, which is basically a compound formed by linking amino acids. Depending on the makeup, peptides regulate all kinds of things in the body, including hormones.
This peptide appears to reduce excessive inflammations because it blocks the proteins that allow the cells to move.
The key to remember is that not all inflammation is bad—some inflammation is good. That rush of cells to an injured area helps to prevent infection and promote healing.
But inflammation should be considered in a broader sense. Many lung diseases are caused by inflammations. That’s why the drug powder is suspended in a solution and delivered as a mist that is inhaled, using a nebulizer.
“Bronchitis, which is caused in part by smoking, causes a rush of inflammatory cells to come to the lungs,” says Adler, giving one example of the problems associated with unwanted inflammation. “Air pollutants also cause all these inflammatory cells to come to the lungs. So in every case, you want to stop the excess inflammation."
That means this discovery could lead to new treatments for chronic bronchitis, asthma and acute respiratory distress syndrome, which results from stresses such as pneumonia or near drowning.
Anne Crews, the supervisor in the lab where much of the research was conducted, still marvels at the potential for the drug. Only a tiny amount of the drug, about one quarter of a teaspoon, is needed for the treatment.
“So many people spend their careers working on something like this and never see it come to this level of success,” says Crews. “It is rare that drugs we see in basic science come to the point where it’s a marketable item, so this is really special. We have made an impact.”
Adler and his team are now investigating whether the drug could be used to block cancer metastasis, which is the spread of cancer cells between organs. Once again, this is not quite the inflammation that typically comes to mind—that which occurs where basic wounds and injuries are concerned. However, it is cell movement, so the applications are similar. There are currently no drugs that would have an effect on cancer in a similar way.
Adler looks at his computer screen once again.
“To think this could actually help people—save lives—is pretty humbling,” says Adler. “I consider myself one of the fortunate scientists in which something I developed in my laboratory can actually save lives, and that’s the overriding goal.”