Pediatricians honored with award
Doctors collaborate, produce inventions that diagnose and monitor asthma
Photo by Dan Addison
|Dr. John F. Hunt (right) and Dr. Benjamin M. Gaston received the Edlich-Henderson Inventor of the Year Award for their work on several inventions, one of which Hunt is holding, that diagnose and monitor lung diseases.
By Charlotte Crystal
The University of Virginia Patent Foundation has bestowed its highest honor, the Edlich-Henderson Inventor of the Year Award, on two pediatricians who specialize in lung disease, Dr. John F. Hunt and Dr. Benjamin M. Gaston.
Hunt, assistant professor of pediatrics, and Gaston, professor of pediatrics, run laboratories, teach and clinically practice at the School of Medicine. Their research collaboration on pediatric lung disease has led to the development of several inventions that can be used to diagnose and monitor asthma and other lung diseases in simple, accurate and noninvasive ways.
Asthma is a chronic disease characterized by inflamed lung tissue and obstructed airways that make it difficult to breathe. About 20 million people suffer from asthma in the United States, including 5 million children. More than 100 million people are believed to suffer from the disease worldwide.
With no known cure for asthma, treatment focuses on managing the symptoms and the inflammation that underlies them. But current treatments bring with them side effects. The more accurately clinicians can assess the extent of the disease, the better they can tailor treatments to the needs of individual patients and minimize side effects.
This is where the work of Hunt and Gaston comes in.
The scientists have found that lung tissue, because of its role in capturing oxygen for the body, faces stresses that other tissue does not. And they have learned that the breath exhaled by diseased lungs is 100 to 1,000 times more acidic than that exhaled by healthy lungs.
This has led to “an entirely new paradigm of lung disease,” according to Dr. Peter Heymann, professor of pediatrics at U.Va. who nominated the researchers for the award. In particular, they have found that “airway acidification underlies many of the symptoms of asthma, emphysema and respiratory failure” and have coined the term “airway acid stress” to describe this phenomenon, Heymann wrote. He believes their work represents a significant advancement in the study of lung pathology.
In addition to their basic research into the processes of lung disease, the pair also has invented noninvasive equipment and systems to measure the levels of oxidant stresses in the lung and the acidity of exhaled breath.
“These talented scientist-physicians not only have studied the processes involved in lung disease, but also have incorporated that understanding into inventions that will allow thousands of researchers and clinicians around the world to improve their ability to diagnose and treat chronic lung disease in children and adults,” said Robert S. MacWright, executive director and chief executive officer of the U.Va. Patent Foundation. “We are still in the early stages of exploring all the potential applications of their work.”
More than 200 laboratories on six continents have used the technology the duo developed, according to Heymann. It also is being used in major clinical trials funded by the National Institutes of Health, a study by the American Lung Association and long-term drug studies by the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.
The U.Va. Patent Foundation’s annual award recognizes an inventor or inventors who have developed technology of notable value to society. The inventions’ value may include financial success, but does not require it. Award-winning inventions may treat disease; serve the disadvantaged, the disabled or the elderly; protect the environment; provide tools for research; enhance education; or aid in the development of a field of science or technology. A committee of U.Va. faculty members selects the winner.
During the past seven years, Gaston and Hunt have submitted 15 invention disclosures to the foundation, according to Marie Kerbeshian, U.Va. Patent Foundation senior negotiator, who wrote in support of their nomination.
The researchers also have established a start-up company, Respiratory Research Inc., to sell their technology to the research market while pursuing Food and Drug Administration approval for clinical use in the United States. They already have secured approval for clinical use in Europe.
Hunt and Gaston were honored for their work on May 16 at a banquet at the Boar’s Head Inn in Charlottesville. They each received a plaque and split a cash award of $10,000. This was the 13th year of the annual award.