Biologist receives $450,000 grant to contribute to asthma research

Aug. 22, 2006

AUSTIN, Texas—A developmental biologist at The University of Texas at Austin has received a $450,000 grant from the Sandler Program for Asthma Research given to innovative scientists willing to step away from their area of research and tackle the riddle of asthma.

Dr. John Wallingford, assistant professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology, is one of four researchers in the country to receive a 2006 Early Excellence Award. He will receive $150,000 each of three years to bring a fresh perspective to asthma research.

John Wallingford
Dr. John Wallingford

“The Sandler Program very much wants radical ideas,” said Wallingford, who studies the development of frog tadpoles. “It seems like a stretch that we’d be able to work on asthma, but an interesting quirk of evolution is that the skin on all tadpoles is made up of cell types that are almost identical to those inside human lungs.”

Wallingford’s research will focus on how genes in developing tadpole skin cells determine whether they become either mucus-producing cells or cells with tiny projections called cilia.

On tadpole skin and in animal lungs, mucus protects the tissue from invasion by foreign particles, like bacteria, and the hair-like cilia move the mucus across the surface.

People suffering from asthma have a larger number of mucus-producing cells and a lower number of cells with cilia in their lungs than normal, which leads to decreased air exchange and blockage of airways.

“If we understand the genes that control the fate of the cell, potentially we could use gene therapy in asthmatics to convert some of the mucus-producing cells into cilia cells,” said Wallingford.

Experiments in the African clawed frogs used in Wallingford’s lab will progress much faster than those in an animal such as the mouse. The frogs develop very rapidly and produce large numbers of embryos that develop externally in pond water. Their skin cells are easily accessed for study.

After developing and refining tests using the frogs, Wallingford will look at lung cells in mice, an experimental model much more relevant to humans.

The Sandler Program for Asthma Research is supported by the Sandler Family Supporting Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

For more information contact: John Wallingford, 512-232-2784; Lee Clippard, public affairs representative, College of Natural Sciences, 512-232-0675.