When Sara Lin, Ph.D., was a doctoral student studying developmental biology, she shadowed doctors in a neonatal intensive care unit and quickly became fascinated with the lungs – especially when she watched tiny, newborn babies learn how to breathe.
Today, as a program director for the Division of Lung Diseases at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), Lin guides international research efforts to study mechanisms of lung development and regeneration. Her work is part of a coordinated approach to identify therapies for conditions that affect the airways and lungs – from rare ones, like bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), to more common ones, including asthma, the seasonal flu, and COVID-19.
As Lin and researchers study the novel coronavirus, they are curious: Will the human lungs regenerate in a manner similar to animals following viral infection? Will this process look different with aging cells? And will that help explain increased risks of severe COVID-19 illness among older adults? How will people respond to COVID-19 if they have other lung conditions, such as pulmonary fibrosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?
Part of what fuels discovery and innovation in pulmonary research, Lin explains, is the complexity of the airways and lungs. More than 50 distinct cell types support the delicate, 3D structure of the lungs, while complex signaling networks help control the growth and function of these cells. When genetic mutations, injury, infections, environmental insults, and aging come into play, acute or chronic conditions, such as BPD, can result.
To learn how the lungs respond to COVID-19 in particular, Lin is drawing on decades of lung research and shared knowledge from scientific partnerships. She and her colleagues are also using all kinds of cutting-edge technologies, from human cell atlases to 3D cell cultures. All have led to insight about pathways for coronavirus infection, molecular targets for treatment, and studies to test new therapies for COVID-19.
Lin’s interest in studying the lungs and breathing has never waned. “Studying lung biology and lung diseases is not only impactful for public health,” she explains, “but because of the complexity of the system, it greatly satisfies one’s intellectual curiosity and inspires creativity.”
Learn more about Sara Lin