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Breathing new life into lung disease

Toronto, December 27, 2012

By Evelyne Jhung

Dr. Wolfgang Kuebler examines endothelial cells through a microscope as his team looks on.
Dr. Wolfgang Kuebler examines endothelial cells through a microscope as his team looks on.

When a person is low on oxygen, blood vessels throughout the body expand. The one exception is that when oxygen is low in the lungs, blood vessels there constrict.

When this condition persists, it causes pulmonary hypertension and makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood through the lungs. This leads to enlargement of the right heart, called right heart failure.

Dr. Wolfgang Kuebler has found that while smooth muscle cells on the outside of blood vessels are responsible for constricting or dilating, they are not responsible for sensing the amount of oxygen that gets to the lungs, as previously believed. This message comes from the endothelial cells along a “signalling pathway.”

He recently had a paper published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, a high impact basic science journal, that showed endothelial cells play a much larger role in the constriction of blood vessels in response to the lack of oxygen and in subsequent pulmonary hypertension.

If there were a way to block, or inhibit, this communication along the signalling pathway between the endothelial cells and the smooth muscle cells, we could potentially prevent right heart failure, a fairly common disease among patients with lung disease.

Spotlight on St. Michael's basic science research