GAINESVILLE --- Stephen Nowicki is a University of Florida medical student, triathlete and asthma sufferer. Since he was a child, Nowicki has suffered from exercise-induced asthma that he controls by taking medicine at least 20 minutes before exercising.
Nowicki took his experiences with asthma and his knowledge of medicine and began searching for better asthma treatments along with researchers at UF. Together, they hope to help Nowicki and other asthma sufferers like him. Their goals are to prolong the time the drug provides relief and to obtain a drug with minimal side effects. Asthma, a chronic disease characterized by shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing, is a result of muscular constriction of the air passages of the lungs. It affects an estimated 14.6 million Americans, according to the American Lung Association.
In their pursuit of better relief for those who suffer, Nowicki and a UF research team of pharmacologists and chemists are studying how a potential asthma drug binds to, and activates its receptor in the cells lining the airways of the lungs. "Our research methods allow us to investigate how the drug interacts with the receptor in the cell and to synthesize new compounds in which these interactions are refined," said Nigel Richards, UF chemistry professor and member of the research team. "If we can manipulate the structure of the drug so as to control the motions of the receptor, we can change the shape of the drug/receptor complex." Richards said this change in the drug/receptor complex may provide a method for lengthening the time it takes for the drug to leave the receptor, providing a longer action time for the treatment.
In the laboratory, Nowicki and the researchers are making changes to the structure of their lead compound and the receptor to confirm their ideas of how the drug fits the receptor found in the lungs of asthma sufferers. "When our drug molecule sticks to the receptor, it is likely that the receptor changes shape," Richards said. "This change in molecular shape triggers a series of chemical processes in the lung cell that ultimately lead to the walls of the airways relaxing so that a larger volume of air can enter the lung." The research may provide insight into how to refine asthma drugs so asthma sufferers do not have to use an inhaler as often as with current treatments.
Other collaborators on the research project include Stephen Baker, a UF professor and chair of the pharmacology and therapeutics department, and Jeff Harrison, a UF assistant professor of chemistry and pharmacology and therapeutics, Harrison said the beta adrenergic receptor is the target protein in the lung for asthma drugs. Nowicki worked under Harrison's guidance to better understand how drugs stick to this receptor. "With a clearer picture of that process, researchers can design better asthma drugs making them avoid receptors not associated with asthma and potentially reduce drug side effects," Harrison said.
Richards said one of the strengths of UF's research is the collaborative efforts between diverse research methods such as chemical synthesis, molecular modeling and pharmacology. "Unfortunately, even if we identify a compound with the potential to treat asthma in the laboratory as a result of Nowicki's efforts," Richards said, "it requires a significant amount of time to ensure that it is safe enough to test on people." Richards said such a process may take 10 years. The sooner the better for Nowicki. "When I compete in races," he said, "it [asthma] does affect me to some degree psychologically as well as physically."
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