Pulmonary researcher Louise Hecker, PhD, has joined the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson as assistant professor of medicine in the Department of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine.
Dr. Hecker, who joins the UA from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), is first-author of a study, “Reversal of Persistent Fibrosis in Aging by Targeting Nox4-Nrf2 Redox Imbalance,” published April 9 online in Science Translational Medicine.
“Dr. Hecker will be a key contributor in UA efforts to fully develop novel programs in respiratory medicine, lung biology and drug discovery,” said Joe G.N. Garcia, MD, UA senior vice president for health sciences. “With her arrival, this truly is an exciting time for pulmonary fibrosis research at the UA.”
“We are very fortunate to have recruited one of the top young scientists in the field of lung fibrosis to the UA. Dr. Hecker provides unique perspectives on lung scarring, cellular deterioration with age and tissue regeneration,” said Kenneth S. Knox, MD, chief of the Division of Pulmonary, Sleep and Critical Care Medicine and associate professor of medicine and immunobiology, who also holds The Murray and Clara Walker Memorial Endowed Research Chair in Emphysema and is a member of the University of Arizona Respiratory Center. “Her research at the UA will be aimed at reversing lung aging and fibrosis.”
“She will be integrated into our pulmonary division at the VA [Southern Arizona Veterans Administration Health Care System] and UA as part of the fibrosis team to advance translational research for our patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis,” said Dr. Knox. “Our goal is to provide the structure to allow Dr. Hecker to develop novel therapies quickly.”
Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is incurable with no current FDA-approved treatment or cure, Dr. Knox noted, with median survival of less than three years, similar to many aggressive cancers.
“My research background and training have been rooted in regenerative biology and investigating mechanisms of tissue injury-repair,” said Dr. Hecker. “More recently, my research interests have expanded to include understanding the role of aging in lung injury-repair responses. I am excited to have the opportunity to collaborate with an exceptional group of investigators at the UA, including Dr. Garcia, who is regarded as a world leading expert in mechanosensitive signaling pathways.”
Regenerative biology studies the molecular and cellular processes by which tissues and organs renew or repair themselves. However, the normal healing and repair process becomes less efficient as we age. Dr. Hecker’s research is focused on understanding why this process “goes awry” in aging and identifying novel pathways that can be targeted to reverse age-associated diseases, such as IPF. Research by Dr. Hecker and her colleagues at UAB identified a novel role for NADPH oxidase-4, or Nox4, an oxidant-generating enzyme that plays a critical role in the formation of scar tissue (fibrosis) in the lung (results were published in Nature Medicine in 2009).
Dr. Hecker’s ongoing research involves discovering new drug candidates to target Nox4 and preclinical testing of novel therapies aimed to treat IPF. She is founder and chief scientific officer of Regenerative Solutions, LLC, a contract research organization that provides highly specialized preclinical testing services for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies with drug development platforms in pulmonary fibrosis. She is principal investigator on a study, “Aging, Fibroblast Senescence, and Apoptosis in Lung Fibrosis,” funded through June 2017 by a nearly $1 million grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs (1 IK2 BX001477-01A1).
Dr. Hecker has been lead or co-author of numerous scientific articles published in more than 20 journals, including The Journal of Clinical Investigation, Experimental Cell Research, Science Translational Medicine, and Nature Medicine. She also has authored several book chapters.
She has mentored several high school and undergraduate student research trainees, and she raised nearly $10,000 through philanthropic donations to initiate the “Gary Godwin scholarship,” where undergraduate students were recruited to participate in laboratory studies that advance IPF research efforts.
Prior to her UA appointment, Dr. Hecker was assistant professor of medicine in the Department of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy & Critical Care Medicine at UAB and a research investigator at the Birmingham Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Dr. Hecker received her Bachelor of Arts degree in biology from Hartwick College, Oneonta, N.Y., in 2000 and her Master of Arts degree in biological sciences, specializing in ecology, evolution and behavior, from Binghamton University in Binghamton, N.Y., in 2002. She received her Master of Science degree in cell and developmental biology in 2007 and her doctorate in applied physics in 2008 from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where she also did post-doctorate training in lung injury-repair.
Dr. Hecker’s honors and awards include the Biological Honor Society’s McClung Award for outstanding research publication in Bios (2001), Hartwick College’s Young Alumni of the Year (2006), and selection as a participant in the Birmingham Venture Club's Entrepreneur Accelerator Program (EAP) in 2009. In the Alabama Launchpad (Governor’s statewide Business Plan Competition), she was a semi-finalist in 2011 and a top-five finalist in 2012. Her lead-author research article, “Reversible Differentiation of Myofibroblasts by MyoD,” published in 2011 in Experimental Cell Research, was rated by Faculty of 1000 as among the best research articles in biology and medicine.
About Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF)
IPF is a disease of unknown cause in which lung tissue becomes scarred, resulting in a progressive decline in lung function. Currently, no therapy has proven beneficial other than lung transplantation. In the United States, IPF affects between 132,000–200,000 people; each year, approximately 50,000 new cases are diagnosed and as many as 40,000 Americans die from the disease, according to the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation. On average, patients with IPF survive less than three years post-diagnosis.