Dr. Louise Hecker, Ph.D.
Louise Hecker’s research focuses on regenerative biology and investigating mechanisms of tissue injury-repair. In 2009, Hecker and her colleagues published a breakthrough paper in which they identified the critical role that an enzyme that generates oxidants plays in the formation of scar tissue in the lung.
Age, genetics, environmental factors or disease can lead to the build-up of scar tissue in organs. For example, a heart attack can cause scar tissue to form in the heart; the same with cirrhosis in the liver. This accumulation of scar tissue, fibrosis, can become chronic and continue to accumulate.
Progressive fibrosis can be fatal, especially as aging slows down the body’s repair mechanisms. Nearly half of deaths in the U.S. each year are attributed to fibrotic disorders, though the official cause of death might be “organ failure.”
Oxidative stress plays a key part in fibrosis — just as oxidation could be a problem if a car rusts, too much oxidation can lead to scar tissue in our organs. Building on her 2009 Nature Medicine paper, Hecker has worked to better understand how the oxidant-generating enzyme NADPH oxidase-4 (or Nox4) leads to fibrosis in different organs. She is also exploring ways to shut off the enzyme with drugs to disrupt the progressive process of tissue injury.
Hecker’s lab has already identified promising drug molecules that can target Nox4 in pulmonary, cardiac and skin fibrosis. Her startup company, Fibronox, is looking to apply this research to produce viable therapies for humans.
Regenerative biology and tissue engineering first caught Hecker’s attention as a student. Some of her early research focused on cardiac regeneration in amphibians. Since then, she has studied how different animals regenerate tissue in different organs, from lungs to skin. This has provided her with broad knowledge of all the different processes and mechanisms involved in tissue repair.
Stopping the process of oxidation and, therefore, the progression of fibrosis is Hecker’s objective. Eventually, she wants to tackle the next frontier in regenerative biology: providing a way to reverse scar tissue damage, whether from disease or aging.