K-RALD: An Alliance Providing a Cohesive Approach to Pulmonary Research

Peter Morris, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and a pulmonary/critical care faculty member at UK HealthCare, pulls up a map showing the U.S. prevalence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a severe inflammatory lung disease that leads to obstructed airflow and difficulty breathing.

“This is who we serve right here,” he says, pointing to Kentucky on the map. The state’s southeastern region is bright red to signify its high incidence of people with COPD.

Lung diseases like COPD are devastating across the U.S., but especially in Kentucky. Ailments like lung cancer, pulmonary fibrosis, asthma, and acute respiratory distress syndrome also hit Kentuckians particularly hard. It’s because of this that the University of Kentucky has continuously dedicated researchers and resources toward finding solutions.

However, before a recent initiative, there was not an official unified effort bringing a large team of lung disease researchers together.

That’s where the Kentucky Research Alliance for Lung Disease (K-RALD) comes in. As part of the Alliance Research Initiative, K-RALD combines scientists and clinicians from a variety of specialties, departments, and colleges to promote translational lung research and improve patient care.

K-RALD is led by principal investigators Chris Waters, PhD, the Dr. Donald T. Frazier Professor of Physiology; Dr. Morris, who serves as vice chair for research in the department of internal medicine; and Jamie Sturgill, PhD, researcher in the division of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine. Their team includes faculty from the College of Medicine, as well as the Colleges of Pharmacy, Nursing, Health Sciences, Agriculture, Public Health, and Engineering. Gathering this wide range of expertise has allowed K-RALD to study a variety of areas related to lung disease.

“We didn’t have a real cohesive approach to the overall area of pulmonary research, either clinically or in basic science,” Dr. Waters said. “And that’s kind of what we wanted to do is bring people together and make it a little bit more cohesive because we needed a more focused effort.”

Collaboration has allowed for more rapid progress. One of the team’s biggest accomplishments, and now a vital resource, is the creation of a lung biobank. The biobank, which is coordinated by Dr. Sturgill, collects samples from people who have suffered with various lung diseases. The donated samples are then analyzed by members of the Alliance to better understand basic mechanisms of disease that will hopefully lead to improved care for these patients. Dr. Waters estimates that in the Alliance team’s two years in existence, the biobank has received samples from more than 100 patients.

By having lung tissue, blood, and alveolar fluid readily available and accessible, K-RALD researchers are better equipped to embark on new studies with potential to develop effective treatments and improve care for Kentucky patients.

Much of K-RALD’s success has stemmed from collaborations that, without the Alliance Initiative, might not have been fostered. For example, Warren Alilain, PhD, associate professor of neuroscience who was not originally in K-RALD, was curious about how his field of study, spinal cord injury, could potentially relate to inducing acute lung injury. He collaborated with Dr. Waters, brought his idea to a monthly Alliance meeting, and received helpful feedback from the team. Together with Ramon Sun, PhD, they submitted an R21 grant and received a fundable score on the first submission.

Another example is a recent supplement to the P30 Center grant awarded to K-RALD members Lu-Yuan Lee, PhD, Medhi Khosravi, MD, and Ellen Hahn, PhD. Their study aims to investigate the role of airway sensory nerves and the neural chemicals released from them in the acute lung injury caused by industrial accidental exposure to chlorine gas.

In K-RALD’s last six-month report, the team had produced 75 publications, with nearly 35 percent of them involving more than one team member, suggesting that, as the Alliance Initiative promotes, teamwork is prevailing.

“The Alliance Research Initiative has allowed us to unify basic scientists and clinicians who are not necessarily speaking to each other on a regular basis,” Dr. Morris said. “Now they're speaking to each other on a regular basis. That's the first step, and this can lead to successful collaborative endeavors.”

The Alliance Research Initiative isn’t just shaping the present research landscape. It’s preparing junior faculty for their careers. In fact, four junior faculty members on K-RALD have received pilot awards, and some have already submitted research grant applications to the National Institutes of Health.

Given the prevalence of lung disease in Kentucky, the K-RALD team feels a sense of urgency in its work. Thanks to support from the Alliance Initiative, the team is able to garner the manpower for faster progress. Dr. Morris says the research being conducted through the Alliance Initiative could bring forth fascinating discoveries that could be applied from the bench to the bedside.

“I think the Alliance Research Initiative has really made the UK lung disease research product much better,” Dr. Morris said. “It’s much more clinically informed, and it’s much more basic science informed as a joint product.

“Individually, it was still good. But the Alliance Initiative has put it a step higher.”

To learn more about K-RALD and our other Alliance teams, click here: https://med.uky.edu/alliance.

K-RALD Alliance Team Members:

  • Paul Adams, MD, Fellow – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Warren J. Alilain, PhD, Associate Professor – Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center
  • Michael Anstead, MD, Professor – Department of Pediatrics
  • Kristin Ashford, PhD, Associate Dean and Professor – College of Nursing
  • Cherry Ballard Croft, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Surgery
  • Hubert O. Ballard, MD, Associate Professor – Department of Pediatrics
  • Chelsea Barrett, PhD – Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
  • John A. Bauer, PhD, Professor – Department of Pediatrics
  • Maher Baz, MD, Professor – Department of Surgery
  • Brittany Bissell, PharmD, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Christine Brainson, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology
  • Steven Browning, PhD, Associate Professor – College of Public Health
  • David Burgess, PharmD, Chair and Professor – College of Pharmacy
  • Leigh Ann Callahan, MD, Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Evan Cassity, Program Coordinator – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Said Chaaban, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Radmila Choate, PhD, Assistant Professor – College of Public Health
  • Warren Christian, PhD, Assistant Professor – College of Public Health
  • Audrey Darville, PhD, Associate Professor – College of Nursing
  • Zach DeVries, PhD, Assistant Professor – College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment
  • Sanjay Dhar, MD, Associate Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Brittany Dong, Scientist – Department of Physiology
  • Samuel Dos Santos Valenca, PhD – Department of Physiology
  • Esther Dupont-Versteegden, PhD, Professor – College of Health Sciences
  • Becky Dutch, PhD, Chair and Professor – Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
  • Whei-Mei T. Fan, PhD, Professor – Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology
  • David Feola, PhD, PharmD, Associate Professor – College of Pharmacy
  • Alexander Flannery, PharmD, Assistant Professor – College of Pharmacy
  • Beth A. Garvy, PhD, Associate Dean for Biomedical Education – Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics
  • Anil Gopinath, MD, Associate Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Elizabeth Gordon, PhD, Scientist – Department of Physiology
  • Timothy Hadden, Education Staffing Specialist – Respiratory Therapy
  • Ellen Hahn, PhD, Professor – College of Nursing
  • Jimmi Hatton Kolpek, PharmD, Professor – College of Pharmacy
  • Richard Higashi, PhD, Professor – Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology
  • Gerhard Hildebrandt, MD,  Division Chief – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Melissa Hollifield, Scientist – Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics
  • Emily Huffman, Student – Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center
  • Benjamin Hughes, Nursing 
  • Anna Kalema, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Jamshed Kanga, MD, Chief – Department of Pediatrics
  • Mehdi Khosravi, MD, Clinical Faculty – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Jonathan Kinder, Student – Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
  • Andrew Lane, PhD, Professor – Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology
  • Lu-Yuan Lee, PhD, Professor – Department of Physiology
  • Feng Li, DVM, PhD, Professor - College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment
  • Jing Li, MD Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine 
  • An-Hsuan Lin, Post-Doc – Department of Physiology
  • Ashish Maskey, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Beverly May, DrPH – College of Public Health
  • Kirby Mayer, DPT, PhD, Assistant Professor – College of Health Sciences
  • James McCormick, MD, Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Ashley Montgomery, MD, Associate Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Peter Morris, MD, Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Kannabiran Nandakumar, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
  • Jessica Newton, Graduate Research Assistant – Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center
  • Javier Neyra Lozano, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Barbara Nikolajczyk, PhD, Professor – Department of Pharmacology/Nutritional Sciences
  • Krishna Pancham, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Pediatrics
  • Sara Pasha, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Gabriella Pugh, Graduate Research Assistant – Department of Pharmacology/Nutritional Sciences
  • Danielle Ray, Program Coordinator – College of Nursing
  • Shahnaz Rehman, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Hiroshi Saito, PhD, Professor – Department of Surgery
  • Parijat Sen, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Preetha Shridas, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Kerri Slaughter, Student – Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
  • Elizabeth Stumpf, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Jamie Sturgill, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Patrick Sullivan, PhD, Regular Faculty – Department of Neuroscience
  • Gerald Supinski, MD, Regular Faculty – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Melissa Thompson Bastin, PharmD – Pharmacy Services
  • Christine Trinkle, PhD, Associate Professor – College of Engineering
  • Juan Uriate Diaz, PhD, Post-Doc – Department of Physiology
  • Dongfang Wang, MD, Professor – Department of Surgery
  • Qingjun Wang, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Ophthalmology
  • Christopher Waters, PhD, Professor – Department of Physiology
  • Mark Wurth, MD, PhD, Fellow – MD/PhD Program
  • Scott Yee, MD, Resident – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Guigen Zhang, PhD, Professor – College of Engineering
  • Shulin Zhang, MD, PhD, Professor – Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine
  • Joseph Zwischenberger, MD, Professor – Department of Surgery