It began as a chance meeting at a scientific conference in England but could result in the first real treatment of an array of fibrotic diseases that kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. As Houston Public Radio’s Jack Williams reports, scientists at Rice University have isolated a human blood protein that seems to fight out-of-control, scar-tissue forming immune cells.
The protein is called serum amyloid P, or SAP, and helps control wound healing in the body by regulating what are known as fibrocytes, which seek-out damaged tissue and try to fix it. Rice University biochemistry professor Richard Gomer and UK immunolgist Darrell Pilling, who met at lunch at a cell biology conference in 2001, were able to isolate the SAP protein and realized it was effective in regulating the long, skinny healing cells that lead to fibrotic diseases, like congestive heart failure, asthma and cirrhosis. This is Richard Gomer.
“The precursers to the fibrocytes are floating around it he blood and this protein in the blood is saying don’t you even think about becoming one of these long, skinny, wound-healing cells in the bloodstream.”
Fibrosis occurs when fibrocytes, the long skinny cells, mistaken minor damage in the body as a wound and bombard the area, leaving excess scar tissue that leads to fibrotic diseases.
“Because this system has basically a hair-trigger, any sort of little damage, like a little bit of clogging of the arteries in the heart or breathing in dust for the lungs can sometimes start this wound-healing process and you start etting then fibrotic tissue or scar tissue.”
Early tests on mice show the SAP protein, in doses about two times what the body naturally produces, is effective in preventing the dangerous scar tissue. Gomer says they’re about two years away from clinical trials, but hope to develop an injectable form of the SAP protein that could protect against fibrosis.
“Our preliminary data looks like we can use this to prevent the progression of the disease, or the initiation of the disease and we’re right now working as hard as we can to do experiments to say can this actually cure a disease, but we don’t know that yet.”
Darrell Pilling, who dropped his arthritis research when he realized the importance of the possible fibrosis treatment, says the SAP therepy is the most promising thing he’s ever been a part of.
“You just start looking at the numbers of people, if this works, the number of people we may impact is phenomenal. This is not some trivial orphan disease of 200 people a year, which is terrible and unfortunate, but we’re hopefully trying to help tens of thousands of people with dreadful situations.”
Pilling and Gomer are also developing on a bandage that could be applied to a wound to deplete the SAP protein if needed to encourage healing. About 30-percent of people over 60 years old have some degree of fibrosis that lead to a vast array of diseases.