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Working Toward a Cure for Asthma

Raymond Penn, PhD, the Robley Dunglison Professor in Pulmonary Research, understands asthma in a lot of ways.

As a father, he carts his daughter, an asthma sufferer, between appointments and always makes sure she has her inhaler within reach.

Asthma is also his day job. As director of the Center for Translational Medicine and director of pulmonary research at the Jane and Leonard Korman Respiratory Institute, Penn oversees a translational team of scientists and lab techs at the intersection of head-in-the-clouds basic research and the urgency of the bedside.

“We can cure asthma in mice a hundred different ways,” he says. “The challenge is to find a drug that will work safely and effectively in humans.” To do this, Penn and his lab team model interactions between signaling receptors and compounds, which are how cells communicate with one another.

Until recently, the relationship between them was represented by the image of a lock and key—a compound of a particular shape contacts a complimentary receptor and an effect is either turned on or off. “There are a number of biochemical and imaging techniques that now allow us to see things we couldn't see before,” Penn says. “Now we can tune receptors to achieve the kind of effect we want.”

This newfound control means scientists can maximize therapeutic impact and minimize the potential for adverse side effects. It also means that already established pharmaceuticals could be useful in areas that were previously unknown to researchers.

The Jefferson team is deeply involved in repurposing the class of anti-anxiety drugs known as benzodiazepines (lorazepam is a member of this group) as well as “bitter tastants,” which are, as their name suggests, molecules responsible for producing bitter taste.

These chemicals show promise as bronchodilators, which means they reverse the kind of restriction that’s typical of asthma, opening up airways as well as new ways of treating patients.