McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Breaking pneumonia's grip: Researcher awarded $100,000 to study pneumonia in the elderly

By Chantall Van Raay
Published: February 3, 2011
Dawn Bowdish
Dawn Bowdish, assistant professor of pathology and molecular medicine and member of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research (IIDR)

When Dawn Bowdish thinks of her 90-year-old grandparents, the importance of her research becomes real. It would be easy for them to become a statistic — one of the thousands of Canadian elderly who die each year of pneumonia, influenza or a combination of both.

In fact, this year is particularly tough, with the influenza strain affecting more elderly than years past. But with a $100,000 Young Investigator Grant from Pfizer Canada, the assistant professor of pathology and molecular medicine and member of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research (IIDR) will help researchers better understand why the elderly are so at risk.

"In some nursing homes the death rate from pneumonia can be as high as 25 per cent over the winter season, so we know we have to be creative and bold to find treatments because this is not acceptable," Bowdish says. "Not only is it hard on the family but on the health-care system. Surprisingly we don't know how many of these deaths  in the elderly are due to bacterial pneumonia, viral influenza or a combination of both."

The grant will support the study of why the elderly are at increased risk of pneumonia and how a co-infection with the influenza virus is particularly dangerous for them. It will also allow Bowdish to test a novel prophylactic therapy, using an antibiotic developed by Pfizer Canada. In studies with elderly mice, Bowdish and her team are looking at ways to administer the drug intranasally in an effort to clear the colonization of bacteria in the upper respiratory tract. They hope that this will protect the at-risk group from both pneumonia caused by the bacteria directly and also pneumonia that arises after an influenza infection.

"It's a bold strategy that might really help people," Bowdish says. "We are testing this in our aged mouse models and hoping to secure funding to bring it to people locally."

Her studies look at macrophages, the sentinel cells that shape one's immune response — and the role they play in infectious disease. These cells, Bowdish explains, play a leading role in controlling bacteria that causes the majority of pneumonias.

Her lab is one of the first in Canada to study elderly mice models in combination with a cohort of elderly living in nursing homes.

"Even understanding the pathogenesis of disease in this huge portion of our population is really going to be important," she says. "We still won't understand the mechanisms of where this breaks down but we will understand where we should focus our research strategy."

Bowdish is conducting the studies in collaboration with IIDR investigator Jennie Johnstone, clinical scholar in the Department of Medicine.

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