Collaboration helps understand aging lungs

Aging brings about many changes in the human body, much of which isn’t clearly understood. But that’s about to change thanks to a research collaboration at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Rebecca L. Heise, Ph.D., in the VCU Department of Biomedical Engineering and Angela Marie Reynolds, Ph.D., in the VCU Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, along with Ramana Pidaparti, Ph.D., in the VCU Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, are working to develop a multiscale hybrid mathematical model to help prevent ventilator-induced injury and inflammation in an aged lung.

“We want to try to understand how the cells in the lungs respond to the mechanical forces of breathing. We’re putting different parameters of the math model together to help clinicians use the correct ventilator settings on patients to help prevent lung injuries that occur due to the ventilator,” said Heise.

The researchers are combining models at the cellular, tissue and organ level to determine the levels of inflammation in an aged lung that has ventilator-induced inflammation.

Heise is conducting lab experiments using stretched aged and non aged lung cells. Her cell and tissue research mimics a lung injury similar to a critically ill patient.

“The model itself will be among the first of its kind by trying to incorporate the whole body,” said Heise. “I think that’s what is unique about this project – it’s the multiscale nature. From the cellular level to the whole body. It’s a pretty complex project where our mathematical modeling and the actual experiments go hand in hand. Collaboration is definitely a big component.”

Until the team began their research, there was no existing data on the aging of lung cells. “A lot isn’t known about the precise mechanisms of lung injuries in older people. Part of what we’re trying to understand is how the multiscale model would work for a healthy lung and then see how that changes with age. We’ll uncover some interesting questions about how the lung is aging and how cells respond differently,” explained Heise.

The work, she says, is grounded in the end result: a scenario in which a critical care doctor can safely ventilate an elderly patient without causing injury. “It’s an exciting time to be at VCU.”

Incidences of respiratory failure impact approximately 1 in 3,000 U.S. residents with mortality rates of approximately 40 percent. The majority of patients receiving mechanical ventilation are the elderly whose respiratory systems fail to function due to various lung and airway disease, such as acute respiratory distress syndrome and asthma.

“We’ll uncover some interesting questions about how the lung is aging and how cells respond differently.” 

– Rebecca L. Heise, Ph.D.

– Christopher Lemmon, Ph.D.