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Spotlight on Research

UNDERSTANDING WHAT TRIGGERS THE START OF LUNG DISEASE IN PEOPLE WITH CYSTIC FIBROSIS

Q & A WITH DR. JUAN IANOWSKI

Assistant Professor, University of Saskatchewan

 

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1970. Since an early age I was interested in biology, and spent most of my free time bird watching, collecting insects, and reading books on life sciences. After graduating from high school, I entered the School of Exact and Natural Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires to study biology and I graduated with an MSc equivalent degree in physiology.

In 1998, I left Argentina to join the graduate program at the Department of Biology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where I graduated in 2004 with a PhD in epithelial physiology under the supervision of Dr. Mike O’Donnell. After graduation, I undertook 5 years of postdoctoral research. In 2009 (after 19 years of continuous university education as an undergraduate, a graduate, and a postgraduate!), I started my own research lab the University of Saskatchewan, in beautiful Saskatoon, as a tenure-track assistant professor in the Department of Physiology. 

How did you get involved in cystic fibrosis (CF) research and what do you enjoy most about your work?

CF is probably the best studied pathological condition of epithelial tissue. So as a graduate student, I developed a keen interest in CF, and after completion of my PhD, I was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship funded by Cystic Fibrosis Canada to study CF lung disease under the supervision of one of the best CF researchers in Canada, Dr. John Hanrahan. That was a very productive and enlightening time in my career, which propelled me into a successful path as a CF researcher.

What I enjoy the most about my work is the process of discovery - the design of experiments and the development of experimental techniques that allow us to advance our understanding of CF.         

What are your latest research findings?

Our most recent findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, describe a previously unknown component of the innate immune defense against pathogens that one might breathe in, like Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Using piglets as a model, we showed that airways in healthy animals respond to inhaled pathogens by producing large volumes of airway liquid that is released by submucosal glands, at the site where the pathogen is located. This liquid traps, kills, and helps clear pathogens from the airway, which helps to maintain lung health. In piglets without CFTR, however, this response is absent. Inhaled pathogens fail to trigger the airway liquid secretory response.    

What does this mean for people living with CF?

Our results suggest that failure of CF airways to produce airway liquid would reduce the ability of the lung to kill, trap, and clear bacteria. As result, bacteria would tend to remain longer in the airway, favoring infection and inflammation of the airway.

Another implication of our work is that it might be possible to improve lung health with treatments that may fix the issue with glandular fluid secretion. We are currently looking into this idea in collaboration with Dr. Julian Tam, Director of the adult CF clinic at the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon.

What are the next steps in your research?

We are very interested in studying where disease starts in the CF lung and how it progresses. We will also study what is different about those sites compared to healthier sites in the same CF lung. To this end, we developed a special computer tomography (CT) scan method that produces images with resolutions that are up to a 100 times better than standard medical devices.

We are also interested in studying to what extent bacterial infection is required to develop CF lung disease. We will house CF swine in sterile conditions, which means that they will have no microbes at all in their lungs. If infection is what causes lung disease, these animals with no microbes in their lungs should not develop lung disease.

Finally, we are interested in studying new complications that may emerge as CF patients live longer lives. In particular, we are interested in studying abnormalities of the peripheral nervous system. In collaboration with Dr. Verónica Campanucci, also at the University of Saskatchewan, we are studying how neuropathies may affect the gut and cardiovascular function as CF patients age.

  

Quick Fact

Dr. Ianowski was awarded the 2018 Cystic Fibrosis Canada Senior Scientist Award for his impressive body of work in understanding the underlying causes of lung disease in CF.