COPD is the leading cause of hospitalization in BC. However, we still don’t fully understand how and why COPD develops and progresses.
BC Lung Association research grant recipient, Dr. Ma’en Obeidat, is using integrative genomics to identify the genes that lead to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). A trained pharmacist with experience in the pharmaceutical industry, Dr. Obeidat went on to obtain his PhD in molecular medicine. Today his work focuses on large scale population genetics, looking at which genes and proteins are associated with COPD to find new drug targets or biomarkers for the disease.
COPD, an umbrella term describing progressive lung disease, of which bronchitis, emphysema and asthma are all variants, is most commonly associated with cigarette smoking. But not all smokers get the disease, and not all COPD patients have been smokers.
Even though smoking rates have declined in Canada, health care workers are still seeing dramatic increases in the number of patients with COPD. In fact, cases of COPD are expected to double over the next 20 years. At present, COPD is diagnosed in 6% of adults over age 45, but is believed to affect many more British Columbians who live with COPD, but remain undiagnosed.
Dr. Obeidat and his colleagues are studying the DNA and related lung function information of thousands of subjects with and without COPD in order to identify DNA regions important to disease risk and progression. While chronic diseases like COPD are often caused in part by environmental or lifestyle factors such as smoking, drinking, and obesity, chronic disease risk is also influenced by genetics.
Though it took decades and billions of dollars to sequence the first human genome, in recent years, genomics — the study of genetic code — has taken off. That is because today the information in a human cell can be catalogued in a few hours for a very small fraction of the original price. Researchers can now look at the genetic data of thousands of people, with and without respiratory disease for instance and begin to establish which genes are vulnerable to mutations causing lung disease.
The challenge will be tying genomics into everyday healthcare practice. Once doctors are able to look at a patient’s genetic information as easily as they can see a patient’s height and weight, they will be able to target those patients at higher risk of certain diseases with interventions that will work best on them, delivering true individualised medicine. But this involves making genome sequencing routine, including creating protections to ensure privacy, and helping patients to take that first, scary step and look at what their genes might hold in store for them.
Today healthcare is reactive: we go to the doctor when something feels wrong, and they diagnose and treat. But the future of medicine aims to predict disease before it develops.
Dr. Ma’en Obeidat is the Computational Genomics Lead at the Providence Airway Centre, Centre for Heart Lung Innovation at St. Paul’s Hospital, Assistant Professor for the UBC Department of Medicine and one of few recent Canadian recipients of the prestigious Parker B. Francis Fellowship award. Dr. Obeidat supervises a team of data scientists, statisticians, and graduate students and works closely with a large team including clinicians (led by Dr. Don Sin), and cell and animal biologists.