Explore This Laboratory

Mission Statement

Drs. Ai and LerouLed by Drs. Ai and Lerou, Newborn Developmental Biology Laboratory uses tracheal aspirate-derived lung progenitor cells and animal models to study mechanisms of prematurity and lung diseases in young children.

Dr. Paul Lerou is the Chief of the Neonatology Division and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics. Dr. Lerou's research is focused on using stem cells to better understand how genetic disorders and prematurity affect a child's development over the course of his or her lifetime and to ultimately develop new treatment strategies.

Dr. Ai is Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Director of Basic Research at the Neonatology Division, and co-Director of Lung Biology & Immunology Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Ai’s research is focused on how the disruption of lung development negatively impacts on lung function and the susceptibility to respiratory diseases in children. Dr. Ai is a standing member on a NHLBI study session and Review Editor for Frontiers in Pharmacology and Frontiers in Allergy.

Project Summary

prematurity and infectionProject I: Prematurity and infection

Premature birth is a major risk factor for infection in infants and long-term functional defects in the lung. However, how premature birth affects the composition and function of human airway epithelium remains elusive. To address this critical question, we have established a robust methodology of epithelial basal stem cell derivation from tracheal aspirate samples collected from intubated preterm and term newborns. This project aims to identify molecular pathways that are associated with preterm birth and affects basal stem cell differentiation and the barrier function of differentiated airway epithelial cells. A clinically relevant disease model is infection of preterm airway epithelial cells by respiratory syncytial virus.  

lung cellsProject II: Molecular phenotypes of human airway epithelial cells with age

The age of a patient has a significant impact on epithelial regeneration and clinical outcomes following injury and infection. This project leverages our ability to derive airway basal stem cells from intubated patients of all age groups to study how age affects proliferation and differentiation of airway basal stem cells in humans.

lung defectProject III: Lung defects in Congenital Diaphragmic Hernia

The lung defect associated with congenital diaphragmic hernia (CDH) is the main cause of mortality and morbidity in patients with CDH. However, since the lung tissue in CDH infants is not accessible, mechanisms underlying the lung defect in CDH remain an unresolved issue. This project proposes to elucidate such mechanisms using mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) and epithelial basal stem cells (BSCs) from patient-specific tracheal aspirate (TA) samples. Our goal is to elucidate pathogenic changes in patient-specific cell models to study disease pathophysiology and to identify novel therapeutics.  

asthmaProject IV: Nerve and childhood asthma

Allergic asthma often initiates from allergen exposure in early childhood and progresses into adulthood. As the lung continues to develop after birth, this project investigates age-related communication between the immature lung environment and the immune system in the pathogenesis of allergic asthma. So far, our findings have pinpointed a novel role of developing sympathetic nerves in augmenting allergic inflammation in early childhood and fostering disease progression into adulthood. We also show that immune cells, such as mast cells, can also modulate airway innervation during postnatal development, which induces a hypercontractile phenotype of airway smooth muscle cells. By understanding the age-related mechanism underlying the development of allergic asthma in early childhood, our goal is to identify novel therapeutic targets for the treatment of childhood asthma and the modification of disease progression in adulthood.

sidsProject V: Pulmonary neuroendocrine system in SIDS

Infants who have died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) show hyperplasia of pulmonary neuroendocrine cells. This project investigates the contribution of the pulmonary neuroendocrine system to the pathogenesis of SIDS. Since pulmonary neuroendocrine cells are innervated, we focus on neural regulation of pulmonary neuroendocrine secretion and the role of bioactive neuropeptides and amines secreted from pulmonary neuroendocrine cells in lung pathophysiology. 

News and Events

Our manuscript, “Lung dopaminergic nerves facilitate the establishment of T helper 2 resident memory cells in early life” is accepted by Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Read the press release.

Our manuscript, “A Tracheal Aspirate-Derived Airway Basal Cell Model Reveals a Proinflammatory Epithelial Defect in Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia”, is accepted by American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine

August 7, 2022- August 12, 2022
Saxtons River, VT

Jianwen Que, MD, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center

Xingbin Ai, PhD
Mass General Hospital

Jonathan Kropski, MD
Vanderbilt University Medical Center

Meet The Team

Dr. Yan Bai (MD)
K08 awardee, Instructor of Medicine
Research Interest: airway and vascular smooth muscle biology

Dr. Jessica Shui (MD)
Instructor of Pediatrics, Neonatology
Research interest: prematurity and respiratory viral infection

Dr. Wei Wang (PhD)
Senior Research Fellow
Research interest: immunology and childhood asthma

Dr. Kamakshi Bankoti (PhD)
Research Fellow
Research interest: tissue engineering and lung development

Dr. Richard Wagner (MD)
Visiting Medical Fellow, Pediatric Surgery, Leipzig University
Research interest: stem cell biology and congenital diaphragmatic hernia

Dr. Caiqi Zhao (PhD)
Research Fellow
Research Interest: airway infection and epithelial biology

Gaurang Amonkar (BS)
Research Assistant II
Research Interest: airway epithelial and mesenchymal progenitors

Selected Recent Publications

Job Opportunities

Graduate Students, PhD and MD Fellows

Please contact Dr. Ai (xai@mgh.harvard.edu) and Dr. Lerou (plerou@mgh.harvard.edu) if you would like to discuss opportunities available in the lab.