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Farrah Kheradmand, M.D.

Photo of Farrah Kheradmand, M.D.Farrah Kheradmand, M.D.
Associate Professor of Medicine and Immunology, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas
Immune Modulators of Inflammation in Severe COPD

Administered by the NHLBI Division of Lung Diseases, Lung Biology and Disease Branch
FY 2009 Recovery Act Funding: $411,039

Additional Funding:
Immune Modulators of Inflammation in Severe COPD
Administered by the NHLBI Division of Lung Diseases, Lung Biology and Disease Branch
FY 2010 Recovery Act Funding: $435,346
More information about the grant
Total funding: $846,385

Missing Information: When Farrah Kheradmand, M.D. is not in the laboratory thinking about lung disease, she is an avid reader, trying to understand the world around her. That sense of curiosity may have helped lead her down the path to becoming a physician-scientist. In medical school, her text books sometimes left her with more questions than answers. "I thought there was missing information in the text book," she said.

Dr. Kheradmand hopes her research will help fill gaps in medical knowledge so that future medical text books have fewer holes, especially when it comes to understanding lung problems. An American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) could help narrow those gaps in lung disease.

Smoking and Lung Function: As a medical student, Dr. Kheradmand learned about the intricacies of the immune system and how many human diseases are closely linked to the immune system turning against self. Part of her research now focuses on how the immune system may be turned on as part of the destructive process seen in the lungs of cigarette smokers. As we age, all of us slowly lose lung capacity. But smokers see a steeper decline. When the average smoker quits, the decline in lung function falls into line with the normal aging process.

Researchers found that approximately 10 percent of smokers who kick the habit continue to have lung problems similar to those of current smokers. Their condition, known as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), is a serious lung disease in which the airways are partly blocked, making it hard to breathe. Dr. Kheradmand is trying to understand why COPD patients continue to see a rapid decline of their lung function after they quit smoking. The answer appears to involve something in the lungs causing the immune system to attack healthy cells.

Keeping the Lab Whole: To study the causes of COPD, Dr. Kheradmand applied for a grant that allowed her to retain key laboratory personnel. In addition to saving jobs, the grant helped her hire a new PhD student who is just starting a science career.

Thanks to the Recovery Act funding, Dr. Kheradmand can grow her emerging research career in an economy where it is hard for new investigators to establish themselves. The economic downturn has reduced funding opportunities while more and more researchers are competing for the NIH's level funding over the last several years.

Turning Waste into Science: The Kheradmand lab's project involves studying fresh lung tissue samples, which add a layer of complexity to the research. When a smoking patient at an affiliated hospital is scheduled to have part of his or her lung removed, Dr. Kheradmand arranges for a lab team member to head to the hospital to take a piece of that tissue within minutes of the operation. Some of the patients have end-stage emphysema and removing dead lung tissue can help them breathe easier, while others have parts of their lung removed for treatment of the cancer. Each patient is approached before surgery and asked if the research team can take a tissue sample, which would have been discarded. When a patient provides consent and agrees to participate, he or she also allows the team access to other vital medical data.

Tissue samples are rushed to the lab, where researchers quickly recover healthy, living cells to learn what substances are being produced. Dr. Kheradmand hopes these cells can shed light on what factors make some smokers more susceptible to COPD. There is evidence that a subset of activated T cells, which are usually recruited to fight off foreign substances, are actually attacking healthy lung.

Dr. Kheradmand notes this is a critical time to understand COPD, which is the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States. The World Health Organization estimates that COPD will become the world's third-leading cause of death by 2030. In some countries, such as China and India, men have smoking rates approaching 70 percent, compared to about 20 percent in the United States. "This is not only a problem for the United States, but a problem worldwide. We're going to face a catastrophe in the next 10-20 years," she worries. "We're at the tip of the iceberg."

Dr. Kheradmand hopes this project will, along with other research, lead to a test to determine who has the genes that make them more susceptible to developing COPD. That future COPD test, if it can be developed, would mean one less gap in the medical text books.

By Greg Lavine

Last Updated:August 10, 2010

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