By Dave Schwab
Most of us have tasks taking minutes, hours, days — sometimes even weeks or months to complete.
Just imagine what’s it’s like to tackle a project that doesn’t come to fruition for 20 years or longer.
Such was the “quest” undertaken at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in La Jolla by immunologist Charles G. Cochrane, M.D.
Now a professor emeritus at TSRI, Cochrane in 1988 began research to solve a chemical equation to counteract Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS), a breathing disorder affecting premature infants.
Newborns with RDS aren't able to make enough surfactant, a liquid coating their lungs allowing them to breathe. Without enough surfactant, the lungs collapse and the infant must work hard to breathe, which may result in oxygen depletion that can damage the baby's brain and other organs if not properly treated.
Twenty-four years later, following extensive research involving lab and clinical testing on animals and humans, a potentially lifesaving drug developed by Cochrane, Surfaxin, was finally approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration on March 6.
What Cochrane developed is a synthetic pulmonary surfactant, KL4, that doesn’t cause an immune reaction when administered directly into the lungs of pre-term infants. KL4 restores much of their impaired lung function within hours after birth.
Development of Surfaxin was a long time coming, but all worth it because of the end result, said Cochrane.
“March 6 was the date that opened huge doors to save many lives … and improve life for millions of others,” he said.
When first informed in 2004 that clinical testing of Surfaxin had been successful, the 81-year-old research scientist recalls with glee he was told, “Charlie, we just delivered your baby.”
Until now, treating 90,000 RDS infants worldwide has involved use of “animal-derived” surfactants with multiple side effects: they’re expensive, injurious to the lungs, produce negative immune reactions, and cannot be produced in sufficient quantities to meet demand.
Now, said Cochrane, Discovery Labs, the company formed to manufacture and market Surfaxin (and for whom Dr. Cochrane consults) can begin distributing the drug that is applied in liquid form.
Still, Cochrane said development of Surfaxin is going one step further with a new aerosol application that can expand its use to treat other diseases and older patients.
“There’s a better way of giving it, freeze-drying the surfactant,” he said. “It will give it a long shelf life and make it inexpensive so it can be sent all over the world to start saving lives.”
Adding the drug could be used to treat other respiratory maladies, such as cystic fybrosis and acute asthma, Cochrane said, “It’s one drug for many treatments.”
Not from a medical background, Cochrane said he always had a basic interest in science. He was among the “Pittsburgh 5,” a group of then-young immunologists who transferred from that Midwestern city to TSRI when it was founded in the 1960s.
Some now refer to Cochrane as “The Last of the Mohicans,” because he is the sole remaining original member of the Department of Immunology at The Scripps Research Institute.
Though he always intended to get into internal medicine, Cochrane said he found immunology so compelling that he never made the switch.