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ArrowDecember Science Café: Babies, Bubbles and Balloons

By Kathleen Laufenberg

Posted: Nov. 19, 2012
Contact: Amy Mast,

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — What do balloons and bubbles have to do with breathing?

December Science Café

Who: Lung Researcher Joanna Long
Topic: Babies, Bubbles and Balloons
When: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 6:15 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Where: Ray’s Steel City Saloon, 515 John Knox Road, Tallahassee
Cost: Free

Joanna Long, a University of Florida associate professor and lung researcher, will show you at our next Science Café on Dec. 4 at Ray’s Steel City Saloon. The interactive Dec. 4 presentation begins at 6:15 p.m. and lasts until about 7:30 p.m. Come early for a good seat and to place your drink or food order.

Long is the director of the MagLab’s Advanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Spectroscopy program at UF. She and her research team at UF’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology want to understand in extreme detail how our lungs work. To do that, they’ve focused on a special fluid, called a surfactant, that lines the lungs. They want to create their own version of this surfactant.

“We’re trying to develop a synthetic surfactant for premature infants with breathing problems,” said Long, who earned her doctorate in chemistry in 1997 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Joanna Long,
Joanna Long, a University of Florida associate professor and lung researcher, will speak at the December 2012 Science Café.

The balloon (to represent lungs) and bubbles (the surfactant) will help audience members better visualize what her research entails, she said.

Currently, premature babies often face serious health risks because of reduced lung function, a condition called infant respiratory distress syndrome. It’s what happened to the late President John F. Kennedy’s youngest child, who was born prematurely and died two days after his birth. But in the nearly half century since then, doctors have devised a way to successfully aid a preemie’s breathing. They inject a cow’s lung surfactant into the preemie’s lungs.

“The animal-based fluid works extremely well,” Long said, “but it’s very expensive and you cannot use that same therapy on older children or adults.”

Science Cafe poster

Click image to download event poster (PDF).

Jim Henson of The Muppets fame, for example, died suddenly after developing pneumonia — although he was otherwise a healthy 53-year-old. Likewise, the oldest son of renowned French movie star Gérard Depardieu, actor Guillaume Depardieu, died suddenly at 37 from severe pneumonia. If caught early, pneumonia can be successfully treated with antibiotics. But if a severe infection settles deep in the lungs, it can damage lung surfactant and kill.

Similarly, loss or damage to lung surfactant is seen in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), interstitial lung disease (which affects the tissue around the air sacs of the lungs), and alveolar proteinosis (a rare disease in which protein builds up in the air sacs, or alveoli).

Long has worked for about eight years to develop a synthetic surfactant that could be used to treat lung conditions in adults as well as help preemies. The synthetic surfactant might possibly be used in drug delivery directly to the lungs, too. Although there’s still much to be done, she finds her research challenging and exciting.

“It’s a particularly difficult problem to address since it's a really complicated substance,” she said. “If we could develop a really good surfactant replacement and tailor it to specific diseases, it could revolutionize the treatment of lung disorders. We have some pretty good ideas, but we still have a long way to go.”

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