Spira’s professional world straddles medicine and bioinformatics. He combines skills and training in both fields to develop novel tools that can help doctors manage patients with tobacco-related chronic diseases like COPD and lung cancer—his chief clinical interest—and improve their quality of life.
What drives Spira is the pressing need for new molecular methods for diagnosing these diseases earlier and more accurately. Doctors have yet to identify which 10 to 20 percent of the country’s 90 million current and former smokers are at the highest risk of falling prey to lung cancer and COPD, which are the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in the United States.
At Boston University, Spira leads a research group that uses a variety of experimental, statistical, and computational methods to analyze gene expression patterns in the airway and in lung tissue. The group has found a potential biomarker for early detection of lung cancer: a set of genes whose altered expression levels—in the cells lining a smoker’s airways—can distinguish smokers with and without the disease. Spira’s group also reported that in these same airway cells, increased gene activity in a cancer-related signaling pathway precedes lung cancer development, activity that can be reversed by myo-inositol, a plant product currently available in health food stores.