Young Investigator Profile: Andrew Vaughan, University of California – San Francisco

A postdoctoral fellow with the Lung Repair and Regeneration Consortium (LRRC) has identified a new type of cell with the ability to regenerate lung tissue in mice. This discovery could have important implications for how researchers and clinicians understand lung injuries.

Andrew Vaughan, PhD, a researcher at the University of California-San Francisco, recently published a paper in the journal Nature describing his team’s findings.

Using a new transplantation assay, Vaughan and his colleagues transplanted these cells—called lineage-negative epithelial stem/progenitor cells (LNEPs)—from healthy mice to mice whose lungs had been damaged by influenza. They found that the LNEPs were engrafted into the existing lung tissue and helped to repair it.

Influenza kills more than 500,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization. Yet researchers have only a partial understanding of how the disease damages lung tissue. Vaughan’s work suggests a potential avenue for future research into influenza treatments, although he cautioned that any such developments were still years away.

“We found that by using this new transplantation assay, we could replace many of the damaged lung cells,” he said. “This has been done in other organs, but until now we haven’t had a viable method prior to this one.”

More importantly, Vaughan said, these findings provide researchers with greater insight into how lungs recover from trauma.

The researchers also discovered that this repair process relied on the Notch cell signaling pathway, which governs cell growth in humans and other animals. They speculated that influenza could affect this signaling network and sabotage the repair process, causing the lung to generate harmful growths instead. This maladaptive process bears some resemblance to what happens in victims of other lung ailments, such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, suggesting that Vaughan’s findings could have implications for lung ailments besides influenza.

“The conventional wisdom was that the lung regenerates itself with epithelial cells that are already present in large numbers,” he said. “We showed that this much more rare population of cells can proliferate and transform themselves into new types of cells. It’s an example of a dedicated stem cell whose role is to repair the lung after serious injury.”

Vaughan, who has worked with the LRRC for three years, credited the consortium with supporting his work financially and in other ways.

“By far and away, the best benefit of being a member of the consortium is you get a lot of face time with important people in the field,” he said. “Having these interactions with primary investigators is incredibly important to younger investigators like myself.”