Tissue is the Issue

Fibrotic diseases kill more people each year than cancer. The cure? To control a routine process that often goes haywire.

By CHRIS JARVIS

Advance-tissuegomerAsthma. Kidney disease. Congestive heart failure. These are only three ailments in a broad class of about 60 collectively known as fibrotic diseases—painful, debilitating, chronic conditions for which neither cures nor U.S. Food and Drug Administration–approved treatments exist. Thanks to two pioneering Texas A&M University scientists, however, relief may soon be in sight.

Biologists Richard Gomer and Darrell Pilling have identified a protein in human blood—serum amyloid P, or SAP—as a key player in regulating scar tissue formation in fibrotic diseases such as cirrhosis and scleroderma. Their internationally recognized research seeks to better understand SAP’s role in the body’s natural wound-healing process and to determine whether it has additional underlying functions that could apply in treating other human diseases.

Scar tissue forms, Gomer explains, as a normal and necessary response to wounds. In fibrotic diseases, however, this otherwise routine reaction goes haywire, creating extra, and often harmful, scar tissue around vital organs, such as the heart and lungs.

“Most of these fibrotic diseases can be fatal, and collectively, they kill more people than cancer,” he notes. “They are associated with about 45 percent of all deaths in the U.S.”

In initial studies at Rice University in 2007, Gomer and Pilling noticed that SAP inhibited the differentiation of blood cells to fibrotic tissue. They theorized that if getting rid of the SAP in a wound were possible, more scar tissue cells would be available, thus enabling the wound to heal faster.

“As it turns out, SAP binds like crazy to a sugar polymer made by seaweed that’s used as a thickener in all kinds of stuff—chocolate milk, ice cream, lipstick, deodorant,” Gomer explains. “There are certain kinds of this agar made by seaweed that you can buy that will bind to SAP. So we made bandages of this seaweed polymer that would gobble up the SAP, resulting in faster formation of scar tissue.”

Gomer says preliminary animal testing with the bandages has indicated that wounds heal an entire day faster than they otherwise would. He is now working with a medical company and hopes to begin human testing later this fall.

In a related effort, Gomer and Pilling collaborated with researchers at Baylor College of Medicine to discover that injections of SAP in mice with cardiac fibrosis shut down the fibrosing process—an exciting scientific and medical breakthrough with huge implications for wound healing and fibrotic disease therapy.

In addition to filing for patents, the duo cofounded a company, Promedior, to further develop the SAP technology. Preliminary tests with SAP on animals with fibrosis have shown encouraging results. Should similar outcomes occur in human trials, Gomer says, people suffering from fibrotic ailments finally may have a treatment option that can stop the progression of or even eliminate their disease.

“What seems to be happening is that the scar tissue cells go away,” he explains. “We don’t know if they die or just round up and leave. It looks like if you can prevent the new scar tissue formation, the old scar tissue will go away, and you can actually reverse fibrosis if it’s something you catch early on, which doctors generally do.”

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