Dr. Ben Smith and team win the RI-MUHC Trottier Webster Innovation award for landmark research toward a cure for COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition that damages the ability of the lungs to function properly, is the third leading cause of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. But Dr. Ben Smith, a scientist at the Research Institute of the McGill University Heath Centre (RI-MUHC), could have the means for a cure: regenerating damaged lungs.

The prestigious RI-MUHC Trottier Webster Innovation Award has been awarded to Dr. Ben Smith and his team to conduct a ground-breaking study that will give hope to patients living with COPD to breathe normally again. Using a new class of treatments called RNA therapeutics, the same technology that makes the COVID-19 vaccine work, he hopes to repair damaged lung tissue and move one step closer to a cure for this deadly disease.

“In the past few years, we have seen major advances in RNA technology, especially as a key part of the COVID vaccines”, says Dr. Smith, a scientist in the Translational Research in Respiratory Diseases Program at the RI-MUHC and a respirologist at the Montreal Chest Institute of the MUHC. “What if we could apply this new approach to COPD? If we are able to use this to target exhausted lung stem cells, this could lead to new lifesaving treatments.”

In most individuals, the cells that make up the lungs are constantly regenerated to keep them healthy. In people with COPD, these cells become “exhausted,” producing fewer and less healthy lung cells. In this new study, Dr. Smith is searching for a way to restore the exhausted stem cells and regenerate damaged lungs. His team aims to deliver an RNA-containing aerosol that is capable of reprogramming the “exhausted” cells and returning them to a healthy state. If successful in the lab and in subsequent human studies, many lives could be changed, as roughly 10% of people over 30 live with this debilitating and deadly disease.

“Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a major cause of death and disability globally and in Canada. COPD exhausts the ability of lung stem cells to regenerate and maintain healthy lung function. This is a chronic condition that can threaten a person’s health over the course of their life, and that is why a treatment is direly needed,” says Dr. Smith.

Pioneering work in respiratory medicine

Dr. Smith is known for his innovative research in respiratory medicine. His recent work showed that people with larger airways —the tree-like network of tubing that moves air from the mouth to the lungs —are more resilient to respiratory disease. Using state-of-the-art imaging techniques, he compared the airways of thousands of adults. His team found that people with smaller, underdeveloped airways had a much higher risk of COPD. Another recent discovery was that a person’s lungs are more susceptible to the harmful effects of air pollution based on the size of their airways.

Through the MUHC Foundation, the Trottier Family Foundation and the R. Howard Webster Foundation contributed $3 million to create the annual RI-MUHC Trottier Webster Innovation Competition, which offers an annual $100,000 prize. This competition only funds the most novel and state-of-the-art research with the greatest potential in advancing patient care.

Dr. Smith’s landmark research could hold the key to developing new treatments to help patients breathe easier and live healthy lives. His innovative work could one day treat and potentially cure other life-threatening respiratory diseases from cystic fibrosis to asthma.

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