TMU’s A-Team: Working Together to Unravel the Mystery of Asthma

Asthma Team (from left to right)
Dr. Yu-Chih Wu, Dr. Chia-Ling Chen, Dr. Bing-Chang Chen, Dr. Alice Hsu and Dr. Chih-Ming Weng

TMU’s Asthma Research Team

 Asthma Team (from left to right)
Dr. Yu-Chih Wu, Dr. Chia-Ling Chen, Dr. Bing-Chang Chen, Dr. Alice Hsu and Dr. Chih-Ming Weng

Dr. Bing-Chang Chen, Leader, the tactician

Area of expertise: Pharmacology

Focus on asthma: molecular mechanisms that underlie lung inflammation and airway fibrosis

Background: With a natural affinity for memorization and an inclination to communicate drug related information, pharmacology came easily to Dr. Chen. He received his Bachelor of Science from Chia-Nan Junior College before completing his PhD in Pharmacology at NTU. After two decades working at TMU, Dr. Chen now directs the School of Respiratory Therapy and leads the asthma team in the direction of developing new drugs that can better control, or even cure, severe and corticosteroid insensitive asthma.

Besides heading the team, Dr. Chen’s work now focuses on the molecular mechanisms underlying fibrocytes. These include immuno-modulation in severe asthma, and using knockout mice to study how ADAM17 related downstream proteins affect airway fibrosis.

Dr. Alice “Chun-Chun” Hsu, the clinician

Area of expertise: Respiratory therapy, Neurophysiology

Focus on asthma: TRPV1 signaling pathway

        Dr. Hsu’s knowledge of asthma goes beyond 12 years studying respiratory therapy. Both she and her mother are asthma patients themselves, which was a strong motivating factor for entering medical school and pursuing graduate studies in respiratory therapy. Personal experience with medications and their side effects left her dissatisfied with current treatments. As a star student at TMU she received a government sponsored doctoral fellowship to go to the University of Kentucky where she later worked as both a pre- and post-doctoral researcher studying the neuroscience of asthma. Dr. Hsu is now a researcher, clinician and assistant professor at TMU’s School of Respiratory Therapy.

        Dr. Hsu’s research target is the neuronal control of asthma. She uses animal models to study the role of neuronal TRPV1 (the same receptor activated by spicy chili pepper) in airway fibrosis. A better understanding of the TRPV1 signaling pathway and its role in inflammation and immune-modulation could lead to novel asthma treatments.

Dr. Chia-Ling Chen, the new member

Area of expertise: Microbiology, immunology

Focus on asthma: Epithelial cells and immune signaling

A Bachelor’s degree in food science introduced Dr. Chia-Ling Chen to what would become her favorite subject: microbiology. To purse that interest, Dr. Chen went on to study microbiology and immunology at National Cheng-Kung University in the southern Taiwan, where much of her research involved immune responses to local infectious diseases. She came to TMU in 2014 to continue this research, but after making contact with Dr. Bing-Chang Chen began to see the urgency of pulmonary disease research. With asthma’s autoimmune implications, it made sense to bring her immunology perspective to the team to help develop more efficient and effective treatments.

Dr. Yu-Chih Wu, the strongman

Area of expertise: Stem cell therapy and regenerative medicine

Focus on asthma: Mesenchymal placental stem cells

        Dr. Wu’s approach to asthma research focuses on the practical application of stem cells. Much of Dr. Wu’s previous studies at TMU’s Center for Cell Therapy and Regeneration Medicine involved using stem cells in the treatment of cancer, but his placental mesenchymal stem cells did not always have a great candidate for interventions. For treating diseases with inflammation or auto-immune response, like asthma, his stem cells’ immune modulating and tissue regeneration effects do show promise, and Dr. Wu is now working on preclinical animal studies of severe asthma and acute lung injury.

Dr. Chih-Ming Weng, the protégé

Area of expertise: Epithelium

Focus on asthma: E-cadherins and the EGFR pathway

        The youngest member of the team, Dr. Wu has a close connection with the beginnings of the asthma team: he was supervised by Dr. Bing-Chang Chen as a graduate student. He works closely with Dr. Chen, and now focuses on the role of e-cahedrin and epithelium damage and the release of damage-cytokines in severe asthma.

Supported by a budget of over 22 million TWD, the team has already begun making research and developmental progress since its inception two years ago. Dr. Bing-Chang Chen is looking to build the asthma research team even further over the next 5-10 years in conjunction with President Lin’s plans for thoracic medicine at TMU.

Asthma, a Complex Problem

Asthma is a chronic, long-term inflammatory disease that affects around 400 million people worldwide. When an asthma attack strikes, sufferers experience wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath as their airways become constricted and inflamed. The causes of the disease are complex; over a hundred genes have been implicated so far, and these interact with exposure to environmental triggers like traffic pollution, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and indoor dust.

Almost everyone is familiar with the inhalers used by asthma patients, a puffer that delivers a dose of bronchodilator or corticosteroids that can (hopefully) stop an asthma attack in its tracks. Oral treatments can also provide symptom reduction in the longer term. While rescue medications used in conjunction with daily medications can help reduce asthma related symptoms and mortality, they can also come with unpleasant side effects that include headache, nausea, infection, weight gain, and depression. Even then, severe or chronic obstructive asthma become resistant to treatment as lung function is reduced and airways are obstructed over time.

The interactions between genetics and the environment that lead to asthma are not completely understood, and neither are asthma’s underlying molecular mechanisms. Higher rates of the disease have been reported each year since the 1960s, putting an ever increasing burden on health care. Treatment options for asthma patients do exist – daily medications can reduce the frequency of attacks and rescue treatments are relatively effective at reducing asthma mortality – but disease severity can increase over time, some forms are treatment resistant, and at the present a cure remains elusive. This is something that Dr. Bing-Chang Chen and the TMU asthma team are looking to change.

Attacking Asthma from Different Angles

Asthma is a complicated problem requiring a complicated solution, and Dr. Chen’s research team has two main mission goals: developing a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying the disease, and finding new drugs and treatments to fight it.

As part of President Lin’s direction for Taipei Medical University’s development of cutting-edge research in the field of thoracic medicine, College of Medicine Dean Han-Pin Kuo (himself an asthma researcher) approached Dr. Chen two years ago to create a plan of attack against one of thoracic medicine’s major target. Dr. Chen set about putting together a multi-disciplinary team of experts at TMU’s Center of Thoracic Medicine to come at the complex disease from a multidisciplinary perspective. The team’s major focus is on investigating the molecular mechanisms underlying the disease and developing anti-fibrotic agents of airway remodeling, and translating the basic research into better, more effective drugs.

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