The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has awarded a team of researchers — which includes six UNC faculty members — a $3.5 million grant for their research on respiratory function and development in children.
The project, titled “Mapping the Pediatric Inhalation Interface: Nose, Mouth and Airways,” will contribute to the Human Cell Atlas, a collaborative project with the end goal of mapping every cell type in the human body.
The initiative has already awarded grants to several researchers at UNC for projects related to medical imaging, software development, COVID-19 response and more.
In total, the initiative offered grants to 17 groups of researchers representing 15 countries.
Dr. James Hagood, who serves as coordinating principal investigator and a professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Pulmonology at the UNC School of Medicine, said that the project aims to create a better understanding of respiratory cell structure and function.
“We are trying to create a cellular and molecular map of the nose, mouth and airways in infants and children,” Hagood wrote in an email.“Think of it as a ‘Google Earth’ of these parts of the body.”
The project is a collaboration from institutions around the world, and the University’s involvement is a big step for its clinical research programs, said co-principal investigator Dr. Richard Boucher, director of the Marsico Lung Institute.
“Much of the work at UNC laid the groundwork for what questions ought to be asked (in this project) and how they should be asked from a technology point of view — I think that’s why we got the grant,” Boucher said. “It puts UNC in the big leagues in a way, because it’s really a node in this broad and star-studded group of institutions and investigators.”
University researchers will collaborate with a team of international scientists to analyze cells involved in respiratory function and beyond. Samples for the research will be collected from six countries: Brazil, Germany, India, Malawi, Vietnam and the U.S.
“A lot of the measurements of gene expression and different cell types as a function of genetic background and as a function of environmental exposure will actually be done at UNC,” Boucher said. “The complex analyses will be done in part at UNC, part in Germany.”
The team is emphasizing the study of tissue from people of diverse backgrounds and environments in order to best understand the many factors that affect respiratory development, said Purushothama Rao Tata, who served as co-principal investigator and assistant professor of cell biology at Duke University.
Studying people with diverse genetic backgrounds is important to the project, Boucher agreed.
“We’re all different, and we respond to things differently, so this type of multinational study allows you to get some real insights with what genetics have to do with it,” Boucher said. “The ability to study different genetic background folks in very different environments is a powerful approach.”
Hagood said that the network prioritizes diversity, inclusion, and justice in the overall plan so that ancestry-related biological diversity can be differentiated from lived experiences of structural racism and poverty.
The samples will be collected locally by clinicians at sites in their respective countries, Tata said.
“We all grew up in a different environment and, according to the environment, our tissues also got adjusted to that," Tata said. "We want to account for all diverse populations across the globe and to map the tissues and the molecules associated with these tissues.”
The study will focus on better understanding pediatric tissues, particularly focusing on the nose, mouth and respiratory system, including the lung at a cellular and molecular level, he said.
Co-principal investigator Kevin Byrd, a research instructor at the UNC Adams School of Dentistry, said in an emailed statement that the study of the pediatric respiratory system will lead to better therapies and disease treatments.
“This atlas of the 'inhalation interface' will be curated and open to the entire scientific and clinical community to accelerate our understanding of disease progression and guide therapeutic strategies in children," Byrd said.
Along with analyzing samples, the researchers plan to conduct studies in which they follow the respiratory development of children from birth into their late childhood, with the ultimate goal of creating better treatments for those who suffer from respiratory diseases, whether it is a chronic condition, bacterial or viral infection, Boucher said.
“We think this will be a major advancement in understanding child health,” Hagood said. “If we know in detail what ‘normal’ looks like, we can better understand what goes wrong in diseases, in order to design better treatments.”
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