TROY researcher leads team in developing new lung surfactant for premature babies

The researchers are aiming to replace Infasurf with a synthetic surfactant. (Image courtesy ONY Biotech)

The researchers are aiming to replace Infasurf with a synthetic surfactant. (Image courtesy ONY Biotech)

Troy University researcher Dr. Suzanne Farver Lukjan is the lead scientist on a team helping to develop a synthetic lung surfactant used to prevent and treat respiratory distress in premature babies. 

Surfactants are substances that decrease surface tension where liquids interface with other liquids, gases or solids. In addition to their use in medicines, they are found in a wide range of products including detergents, cosmetics, motor oils and adhesives. 

Lung surfactants help premature babies breathe while their lung cells finish developing. In addition to offering a potential alternative to replace the current medication for babies, Infasurf, researchers say the new synthetic surfactant could be useful for treating adults with lung injuries as a result of diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, miner’s lung or emphysema. 

Previous attempts at developing synthetic lung surfactants have been unsuccessful—some have been removed from the market, while others were unable to lower surface tension as well as the animal-derived formulas. Lukjan’s idea was to create surfactants from synthetic lipids and peptides, which are short chains of amino acids that are easier to work with than proteins. 

“Theoretically it should be really simple, but it’s not,” she said. “Lipids are hard to work with. We’ve had some successful samples, but we need to be more consistent and figure out exactly what the concentration of peptides should be.”

After tweaking a step in the sample preparation process, the researchers found a few formulations that showed particular promise. Although tests demonstrated that the chemical behavior of the synthetic surfactants was quite different from that of Infasurf, the new surfactants were able to mimic the drug’s functionality in terms of lowering surface tension and seem to achieve the optimal range in terms of peptide concentration. 

As a next step, Lukjan said the group plans to continue to refine and test their formulation to further optimize the combination of lipids and peptides. The surfactant would also need to undergo safety testing before it could be used clinically. 

“Through this process, we may learn more about how the proteins and lipids interact, just from an academic standpoint,” she said. “We hope our formulation will one day be used in hospitals.”

Lukjan presented the research at Discover BMB, the annual meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) in San Antonio, Texas. The ASBMB is a nonprofit scientific and educational organization with more than 12,000 members worldwide. 

Lukjan received her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Florida in 2011 and completed her postdoc at the University of Wyoming before joining the faculty at TROY in 2013. Her research interests include membrane protein structure, lipid dynamics and applying biophysical techniques, such as NMR, to study complex lipid membrane systems. She currently teaches general chemistry I (lecture\ lab) and biochemistry (lecture\ lab).

This research was partially funded by ONY Biotech Inc., maker of Infasurf.