The Role of Ceramide in Asthma [online video]

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5th Annual VCU 3MT® Competition, held on October 18-19, 2019.


Breathing should be one of the most natural, uneventful parts of our day. Unfortunately, for over 25 million Americans living with asthma this seemingly mundane activity carries a heavy burden. Every year the number of people with asthma continues to rise, especially in developed countries. Despite this growing problem asthma remains without a cure. The different types of asthma can be as unique as the individual who has it, making it difficult to design one simple solution. The best option for asthmatics is to avoid activities or environments that trigger their asthma, and manage primary symptoms. But what if these symptoms shared a common source? My research proposes that ceramide, a type of sphingolipid, plays a central role in the development and severity of asthma. This lipid is a powerful signaling molecule involved in a variety of cellular pathways also commonly seen in asthma. In asthma mouse models our lab has shown that levels of ceramide increase within the lung, causing cell death, inflammation, and poorer lung function. Interestingly, blocking the production of ceramide in the lung reduced these symptoms, protecting the mice against asthma. We also have evidence of ceramide levels increasing in the lung fluid of asthmatic patients, not only translating our findings to humans but also offering a possible new marker to screen for this airway disease. The complexity of asthma presents many challenges. However, the ideal solution does not imply addressing every symptom separately but focusing that effort to an underlying target. Ceramide may be that bullseye.


Breathing should be one of the most vital, instinctual, and underwhelming moments of our day. But for over 25 million Americans living with asthma, this supposedly mundane activity carries a heavy toll. Every year the number of people with asthma continues to rise, especially in developed countries. In the United States alone an alarming 10 people per day lose their life this disease. But for an issue that has become so common and so dangerous, we are still without a cure. This is because the different types of asthma are as unique as the individuals who have them. You see, the asthma medication for your Aunt Pam with the bad allergies is taking isn’t gonna do much for your BFF Kyle who gets into a coughing fit after his short runs, or for your younger brother who unfortunately inherited asthma from your dad’s side of the family. There just isn’t one simple solution. The best doctors can do is meet with their patients individually and design a unique treatment plans, which could suggest avoiding environments activities or environments that can trigger their asthma, and taking a bunch of medications to manage symptoms. But what if all of these symptoms shared one common source? My research suggests that ceramide, a type of sphingolipid, play a central role in the development and severity of asthma.

Now I know it’s a fancy word, but sphingolipids are a just a special class of lipids, like fats of cholesterol. Ceramide, the molecule I’m interested in, is the central building block for all sphingolipids. And our lab and a host of others have shown that ceramide is involved in a wide variety of cellular pathways. But what does all of this have to do with asthma? First, my lab has shown in multiple mice asthma models that ceramide levels are increased in the lung. Second, and this my favorite part, when you block just ceramide in the lung you can protect these same mice from developing asthma. And so now we are currently trying to understand which specific pathways ceramide is pushing to progress this airway disease. And so far we’ve seen that high levels of ceramide is linked to reactive oxygen species and cell death, which are two very common markers of severe asthma. Now some of you may be thinking, “that’s cute Briana, but mice aren’t people”. And you would be right. But we’ve also measured higher levels of ceramide in asthmatic patients. We are beginning to see all of these different connections between different symptoms of asthma to one sphingolipid. And though we still have a long way to go, my research can bring us closer to designing inclusive, simple treatments for a variety of symptoms for asthma, and maybe even a cure. And I think that’s something that can all help us breathe a little easier. Thank you.


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