Ji Young Lee, M.D., Ph.D., a pulmonary and critical care physician with USA Health, is studying the fundamental mechanisms of pH regulation in pulmonary endothelial cells, which line the blood vessels of the lungs.
By Lindsay Lyle
Ji Young Lee, M.D., Ph.D., a pulmonary and critical care physician with USA Health, received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), totaling $1.9 million over a five-year period, to study how the lungs handle acid.
Critically ill patients with pneumonia often present with excessive acid in their blood, a condition called acidosis. However, whether acidosis is a marker or a mediator of disease progression is still unknown. Lee’s laboratory is studying the fundamental mechanisms of pH regulation in pulmonary endothelial cells. These cells, which line the blood vessels of the lungs, form a semipermeable barrier and regulate the exchange of fluids, gases and other substances.
“Findings from our study will help develop new diagnostic and therapeutic strategies for critically ill pneumonia patients,” said Lee, who also is a an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology and the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine. “Since these patients often suffer from long-lasting complications even after discharge, as demonstrated by the COVID-19 long-haulers, we hope our work positively impacts both short- and long-term pneumonia outcomes.”
Lee, principal investigator of the project, is the recipient of the NIH’s Research Project Grant, also known as an R01 grant, which provides support for health-related research and development. Mikhail Alexeyev, Ph.D., professor of physiology and cell biology; Thomas Rich, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology; and Troy Stevens, Ph.D., professor and Lenoir Louise Locke Chair of Physiology and Cell Biology, and director of the USA Center for Lung Biology, will provide their expertise as co-investigators. Reece Stevens, a doctoral student in the Basic Medical Sciences Graduate Program, will play an important role in the project.
As a researcher, it is a great honor that my work is supported by the experts in the field,” Lee said. “As a physician, it is a privilege that I can explore scientific questions that could potentially benefit my patients.”
Lee is a member of the USA Center for Lung Biology, recognized by the NIH as a top institution for pulmonary vascular research. The center comprises more than 40 faculty members and 25 postdoctoral fellows, clinical fellows, and graduate students representing both basic and clinical science departments.
“If it were not for those great investigators who built this center and accumulated a reputation with their passion and outstanding work over the years, I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this great environment today,” she said.
Troy Stevens, Ph.D., who leads the Center for Lung Biology, is Lee’s primary research mentor. “Working with Dr. Stevens first-hand has been the greatest inspiration for me, and the positive influence he spreads around every day is an invaluable asset to the College of Medicine and to the field of lung biology,” she said.
Lee also credits mentors Karen Fagan, M.D., a pulmonologist, director of the Pulmonary and Critical Care Division, and director of the Pulmonary Hypertension Center; Brian Fouty, M.D., a pulmonologist, professor of internal medicine, and director of the Pulmonary and Critical Care Fellowship Program; and Errol Crook, M.D., a nephrologist, professor and Abraham Mitchell Chair of Internal Medicine, and director of the Center for Healthy Communities.
“There has been a concerning shortage of physician-scientists for many years,” Lee said. “I have been fortunate to be trained in our pulmonary division where most faculty pulmonologists are physician-scientists, with experience in NIH-funded research. Their guidance and consideration have been critical for my fellow-to-faculty transition and continued research as an early-stage investigator.”
Lee received her medical degree from Pusan National University in Pusan, South Korea. She completed her residency training in internal medicine at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in Bronx, N.Y. She went on to earn a doctorate in molecular medicine from Elmezzi Graduate School of Molecular Medicine in Manhasset, N.Y.
She completed a fellowship in pulmonary/critical care medicine with USA Health in 2016, followed by a postdoctoral research fellowship at the USA Center for Lung Biology in 2018. Upon completion of her fellowships, Lee joined the faculty of the USA College of Medicine as an assistant professor. She is board certified in internal medicine, pulmonary medicine and critical care medicine.
“I took an unusual training path, so our mentors had to invest extra time and effort to carve out a personalized supporting environment for me,” Lee said. “Getting this grant was simply impossible if it were not for their support.”