Easing breathing

(Edmonton) One morning in 2006, University of Alberta physiologist John Greer was reading the Globe and Mail newspaper at breakfast when he happened upon an article about drugs called Ampakines being studied to treat sleep deprivation.

“It suddenly struck me�could these drugs be useful to stimulate breathing for people on pain medications during and after surgery, and for people with breathing disorders,” said Greer. “As soon as I got to work, I started to dig up everything I could find on Ampakines.”

That day was a turning point for John Greer and his team in the Department of Physiology in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. With the help of Joanna Preston, technology transfer manager for health sciences at TEC Edmonton, Greer created a spinoff company now called Progress Scientific Inc. On Sept. 13, Greer announced a license and funding deal with California-based Cortex Pharmaceuticals Inc. to study the drugs more closely and explore commercialization options.

All told, Greer, an Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions scientist, has spent nearly three decades pinpointing how the nervous system controls breathing. Laboratory research led his team to discover that AMPA receptors—little points of communication throughout the central nervous system—are essential to breathing.

“If you were to block the AMPA receptors, you would simply stop breathing,” says Greer.

During the scientific journey, Greer’s team became interested in why opiate painkillers cause some people’s breathing to shut down. “We know that narcotic painkillers given during surgery affect the part of the brain that enables breathing,” says Greer. “But we want to better understand why some people receiving painkillers and anesthetics stop breathing altogether.”

As Greer team’s results were published in several international academic journals, breathing experts from around the world began to take note.

Cortex Pharmaceuticals saw the potential for clinical testing based on Greer’s laboratory results. He was then enlisted to advise on an early-phase clinical trial that demonstrated for the first time that the drug reversed the effects of painkillers on respiratory depression without impacting pain relief.

Greer is currently doing pre-clinical testing of this drug for people whose breathing is depressed by various medications. Greer’s team is also investigating whether the drug can alleviate breathing problems for people with sleep apnea, chronic pain, heart failure, late stage ALS and Parkinson’s disease.

“As a member of the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute at the University of Alberta, I have the valuable opportunity to work closely with physicians,” said Greer. “Because of their input I am directing our Ampakine studies toward seeing if we can help newborns maintain a strong breathing rhythm while taking pain medication when undergoing procedures, or in cases where their breathing is simply too weak.”