One of the most important characteristics of an idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis researcher is persistence. Indeed, Dr. Nasreen Khalil has dedicated her research career to unraveling the mystery of IPF and finding effective treatments. The disease affects an estimated 30,000 Canadians and there is no known cure – yet.
It was during her respirology fellowship some 20 years ago that Dr. Khalil first became captivated by IPF. Previously viewed as an inflammatory disease similar to asthma or COPD, Dr. Khalil and her team discovered that IPF is actually a disease of the lung tissue. In fact, she was the first scientist to describe the association of a molecule called TGF-b1 with the development of pulmonary fibrosis. This groundbreaking discovery changed the course of her IPF research and led to the development of an agent that she hopes will one day be made into a commercially available drug to treat IPF. It also put her team of Canadian researchers on the map as leaders in IPF. She is currently based at the University of British Columbia.
It is her patients that keep Dr. Khalil working so hard to raise the profile of the disease, and pounding on doors for research funding. “It’s heartbreaking. I have one patient – she has only a quarter of her lung function left and she’s just struggling to live. Almost every year around spring she’s asks me: Is there anything you can do to keep me alive for just a bit longer-just until the summer?” The typical IPF patient is usually between 50 to 60 years old and male. The number of people being diagnosed with IPF is rising. Currently, 6,000 Canadians are diagnosed with IPF each year, and 5,000 Canadians die from the disease annually. The two hallmark signs of IPF are shortness of breath and a persistent, dry cough. “This disease is insidious,” explains Dr. Khalil. “Many people cannot pinpoint exactly when they noticed becoming short of breath – usually when doing regular activities.”
It hasn’t been an easy road – and there is still a long way to go before clinical trials and commercial development of her team’s drug. But step by step she is working to advance her discovery to give hope to those living with the progressive and fatal disease. Over the years, she has juggled raising a family, earning a living at her “day job” as a doctor, and finding the time and funding to conduct her research. She admits that: “There are times when I was so discouraged and tired and I thought about giving up, just stopping and having a regular life” But that feeling was fleeting. “One look at my patients and I see no choice but to keep moving forward; they are innocent victims of complex disease and deserve to have investigators and researcher to keep going; anyone can give up but not everyone can keep going.”