A research consortium led by Irene Heijink from the Department of Pathology & Medical Biology of the UMCG has received a €2.3 million grant from NWO. With this the consortium will conduct research into innovative treatment of COPD.

Around 600,000 people in the Netherlands suffer from COPD. To date, this progressive lung disease cannot be cured and is the third leading cause of death worldwide. The new research program RecovAir aims to change this. In this program, researchers will package stem cells and/or drugs for tissue repair into an ultra-thin hydrogel layer. This will allow the researchers to deliver the treatment locally into deeper lung regions and prevent the stem cells and/or drugs from being prematurely cleared by the body’s own defense system. In places where the air sacs (alveoli) are damaged, the drugs or stem cells can then be prompted to repair or replace the destructed alveoli.

Video: The new NWO consortium RecovAIR in short

Initiating repair of lung tissue

Irene Heijink expects that their studies will be promising. ‘At the moment, the disease COPD cannot be cured; only the symptoms can be suppressed. Newly developed drugs unfortunately are not very effective in patients with COPD. This  because the drugs do not reach the deeper regions in the lungs or are quickly cleared by the body. The specially developed hydrogel ensures that drugs or stem cells can be delivered locally into specific sites in the alveoli of the lungs and remain here for prolonged periods of time. In addition, the hydrogels can be modified to enhance the ability of stem cells to promote repair tissue. With this, we expect to be able to reactivate lung tissue repair in COPD and develop the first curative treatment for COPD.

Test in mini-lungs and model lung

At the UMCG, the strategy is being tested in innovative models, such as cultured mini-lungs and a model in which entire human or sheep lungs breathe outside the body.  Irene Heijink: ‘The intended result of this research is that we increase the lifespan, quality of life and social participation of this group of severely ill lung patients. Currently, the patients  require  intensive and long-term care. An additional advantage is that our program will significantly reduce healthcare costs ‘.

The study will last 6 years. After this clinical trials will be required before  the novel products for the treatment of COPD can reach the market.

About Irene Heijink
Irene Heijink is a Medical Biologist working in the Departments of Pathology & Medical Biology and Pulmonary Diseases at UMCG. Her main interest is the pathogenesis of asthma and COPD. She is currently principal investigator and leader of the Experimental Pulmononology and and Inflammation Research (EXPIRE) group. Furthermore, she is program leader of the Groningen Research Institute for Asthma and COPD (GRIAC)

About RecovAIR
Learn more about the RecovAir research program:
RecovAir: REpairing lung damage via reCOVery of stromal heAlth to restore respIRatory function.
Program leader: Prof. Dr. Irene Heijink (UMCG)
Knowledge Institutions: LUMC, University of Groningen, UMCG, University of Twente
Companies: Aquilo, Boehringer Ingelheim, Emulate, LungHealth, NecstGen, Neuroplast, Rousselot Biomedical, STEMCELL Technologies, XVIVO
Involved societal organizations: Lung Fund, Northern CARA Society
Total budget: 3.8 million euro Co-financing: 1.5 million euro (in-cash and in-kind)

About the NWO Perspective program
The Perspective program challenges researchers to form consortia with industry, governmental and societal organizations. Together they work on technological innovations with societal impact and the creation of economic opportunities for the Netherlands. The research programs focus on major societal challenges and key technologies, thus contributing to the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Mission-Driven Top Sectors and Innovation Policy. More information about Perspective can be found here

A movie of all nine honored projects can be found at here