How regenerative medicine can aid lung disease in babies

June 12, 2024

Dr. Vlad Kalinichenko discusses his role in recruiting the brightest researchers at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix in order to treat premature infants with respiratory conditions.

Science Talks Podcast Episode 56 How regenerative medicine can aid lung disease in babies featuring Dr. Vlad Kalinichenko

In many cases where babies are born prematurely, they often have underdeveloped lungs. This can cause breathing problems and neonatal lung diseases that require long-term treatment, or even lung transplantation. It’s critical for research to be done to provide treatments that can help these premature babies survive so they can grow up healthy. 

Amy Barber is joined by BIO5 member, Dr. Vlad Kalinichenko, an internationally renowned research scientist and director of the Phoenix Children’s Research Institute at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix. Kalinichenko was recently awarded a $3M grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop new treatment methods for lung disease in premature infants. 

This interview had been edited for length and clarity.

We always like to start every podcast with a few fun icebreakers: If you could have dinner with any historical figure who would it be and why? 

I would be honored to have dinner with Charles Darwin, his work on The Origin of the Species is just outstanding. I enjoy reading it not just from the scientific perspective, but as a traveler and how he comes to his conclusions. 

If you could have any exotic pets, what would it be? 

I would probably have a Liger, which is a hybrid between a lion and a tiger. They are sociable like lions but can swim like tigers.  The problem with Ligers is that they are much bigger than lions or tigers and need about 50 pounds of steak per day to satisfy their appetite. Of course, I cannot afford that so unfortunately, I will never have one as a pet. 

 City life or countryside? 

Neither I don’t like the inside of the city nor being far away in the countryside. I am a suburban person, close to the city but with privacy in my backyard. 

It’s always nice for us to hear how our BIO5 members got into science. Would you briefly share your story with us? 

I think the key part of my career was my training at the University of Illinois with Robert Costa, a very famous molecular geneticist who discovered many transcription factors that are important genes for regulating cell signaling in many cell types. Working with him, I became interested in a couple of genes that happened to be in the lung. 

Later in my own lab in the Department of Medicine at the University of Chicago, I took my experience with those transcription factors and applied them to lung development, regeneration, and injury repair.  

Then later at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, I was the chair of lung regenerative medicine, with the idea of targeting genes in pediatric lung diseases. 

How long were you at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center? 

I was at Cincinnati Children’s for 16 years, and became the endowed chair of lung regenerative medicine, solidifying my interest in lung and lung diseases. 

What was it that brought you to Arizona a year ago? 

I would say it is an opportunity for growth and to build something special. With the partnership between the University of Arizona College of Medicine -Phoenix, and the Phoenix Children's Hospital, the Phoenix Children’s Research Institute was created with the idea of bringing pediatric translational research to Phoenix.  

I was offered the job to be founding director of that institute, and my goal is to have a positive impact on patient care in the pediatric population. 

You have an administrative position as the founding director of the Phoenix Children’s Research Institute, but are still running a lab? 

Yes, we have several different directions to develop new therapeutic approaches for neonatal lung diseases. This includes identifying new small molecule compounds with pro-angiogenic properties via drug screens.  

We are interested in gene therapy in which we deliver pro-angiogenic genes to endothelial cells of neonatal lungs with high efficiency and precision. We also develop cell therapies where we isolate progenitor cells from various sources for potential treatments of kids with neonatal lung diseases. I am also interested in developing artificial lung tissue from pluripotent embryonic stem cells, with the idea of having that tissue for lung regenerative medicine purposes and transplantation. 

Your lab was one of the first in the world to use stem cells to generate bioengineered lung tissues. Can you tell us more about that? 

My lab is interested in using embryonic stem cells to create lung tissue using embryos as a bioreactor. In this case, we do not use soluble factors or artificial scaffolds. We are using Mother Nature to guide us in making lung tissue from embryonic stem cells.  

My lab was one of the first in the world to generate lung tissue from the embryonic stem cells in mouse embryos. We are now continuing this effort and hope that it can be an avenue for anyone who needs a lung transplantation in the future.  We are still working on refining this technology for embryonic stem cells using small animal models. 

How many years until this technology is ready for humans?  

I think there is still a long way to go because of the many barriers to human testing. This technology needs to be heavily controlled for ethical, political, and religious reasons. I would estimate up to 10 years, but it could be longer.  

Can you explain a little bit about what neonatal lung disease means? Do babies need transplantation or treatment because of particular diseases? 

There are genetic diseases where several important genes are mutated, and because of that, babies are born with lungs incapable of performing respiration. Among those diseases, I am interested in alveolar capillary dysplasia and acinar dysplasia. Additionally, we see patients born prematurely who need supplemental oxygen and will benefit from innovative therapies.  

Can you tell us about your role at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix? 

I oversee recruiting established researchers interested in developing new technologies that help a variety of pediatric conditions. We have great clinical operations where we bring new technologies and science to develop new treatments for diseases. This idea is a multiyear recruitment effort and will hopefully make Phoenix Children’s Hospital one of the best not just in the United States, but in the world.  

What’s next for you?  

Recruitment is a primary goal. But for my scientific interests, I want to make new discoveries and move our products, such as gene therapies, cell therapies, and newly discovered drugs, into clinical trials. 

What is your why? 

From a scientific perspective, my goals are to achieve new breakthroughs and publish research manuscripts. Plus, I want to continue to obtain external funding and recruit new investigators to the college and hospital. It’s a long-term commitment to build something special, but I hope to achieve it a few years down the road.  

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