Two research teams based at the University of Chicago have received prestigious grants from the National Institutes of Health to develop novel medications to treat sleep apnea and asthma.
The grants are designed to accelerate discovery of effective pharmaceutical treatments during the critical second stage of a drug’s development, the period between the discovery of a potential new medication and the first round of human clinical trials. The funding — which amounts to about $1.7 million annually for each project for up to five years — is administered by the NIH’s Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
“This support will help speed up the bench-to-bedside process that typically takes decades of research and development,” said Julian Solway, MD, the Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service professor of medicine and pediatrics. “We hope it will bring patients one step closer to medications that could free them from the constant constraints of breathing problems.”
The sought-after Centers for Advanced Diagnostics and Experimental Therapeutics in Lung Diseases Stage II grants (known as CADET II grants) were awarded to ten teams nationwide. Each program has already identified and validated a drug target in a significant new treatment approach.
One of the Chicago teams, led by Nanduri Prabhakar, PhD, the Harold Hines Jr. professor of medicine, will focus on developing the first drug to prevent sleep-disordered breathing. The other team, led by Solway, will concentrate on a novel treatment for severe asthma.
New therapies focus on apnea and asthma
Both sleep apnea and severe asthma affect millions of people, but each has limited treatment options.
In sleep apnea, the body fails to regulate breathing when someone sleeps, causing oxygen levels to drop precipitously. Untreated, it can lead to serious health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, even brain damage and death.
There are currently no medications to treat sleep apnea. Patients rely on a ventilation-assistance device known as continuous positive airway pressure. This helps patients breathe steadily at night, but it has no effect on the source of the problem.
Prabhakar, who directs the Institute for Integrative Physiology and the Center for Systems Biology of Oxygen Sensing at the University of Chicago, instead hopes to target a chemical signaling system that prompts the body to take each breath. His team has targeted a specific enzyme to regulate breathing.
While there are several effective medications for asthma, approved drugs don’t control symptoms for as many as 15 percent of the 20 million Americans with the disease.
“There is an unmet therapeutic need,” said Solway, who directs the University of Chicago’s Institute for Translational Medicine.
People with severe asthma often remain symptomatic, even when they follow their doctors’ guidelines, take high-doses of corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and use long-acting bronchodilators to fight airway constriction.
“We propose a more robust strategy,” So