Thanks to $11.5 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Defense, researchers from the National Jewish Health respiratory treatment center in Denver will study why veterans who were deployed to the Middle East (Southwest Asia) experience increased rates of lung disease; and they will test potential treatments.
The contributions, through the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, will study 100 of the veterans with lung disease.
“Warfighters deployed to Southwest Asia suffer a baffling array of lung diseases at almost twice the rate of veterans deployed elsewhere,” Dr. Greg Downey, principal investigator and professor of medicine at National Jewish Health, said in a news release. “We will combine clinical information and biological samples from previously deployed veterans with cell culture and animal studies to evaluate how two distinct biological pathways may contribute to lung disease. We will also test experimental medications that target the two pathways.”
Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who raised awareness about the research at National Jewish Health, said he could think of no organization more deserving of the funding or better equipped to conduct the studies.
“As the wounds of war continue to change, we must ensure that we are advancing treatments to meet the needs of those who have served,” Bennet said. “National Jewish Health is conducting valuable research on respiratory disease critical for service members, veterans and civilians alike.”
Dr. Michael Salem, chief executive officer of the facility founded in 1899, thanked Bennet for bringing the Pentagon to its attention.
“We also appreciate the support of fellow Colorado Senator Cory Gardner and the efforts of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a tireless champion for the needs of our warfighters and veterans. We look forward to working closely with the Army in finding new and innovative ways to protect the respiratory health of our servicemen and women,” Salem said.
Since 2001, more than 2.8 million U.S. government and non-governmental organization workers, military personnel, and contractors have been deployed to Southwest Asian territories, mainly to Iraq and Afghanistan. Increasing rates of lung diseases have been observed among the veterans since then. Exposure to various air pollutants are suspected to be the cause of the respiratory disease, but no clear reasons have been determined.
Veterans of the wars who have lung disease symptoms have been seen at National Jewish Health’s Center of Excellence on Deployment-Related Lung Disease for more than five years. It is headed by occupational lung disease expert Dr. Cecile Rose.
While treating warfighters, Rose collected clinical and epidemiological data. For the new groundbreaking study, Rose will work with Downey, an expert on molecular mechanisms of lung injury and repair.
“The expertise and experience of Drs. Rose and Downey combined with the Department of Defense funding, promises to bring extraordinary resources to the search for a cause, a cure and new diagnostic tests for deployment-related lung disease,” Salem said.
The funding comes from two grants.
Over five years, $10 million will be used for the study “Mechanisms and Treatment of Deployment-Related Lung Injury: Repair of Injured Lung Epithelium“. The research will look at the “two-hit hypothesis” that suggests chronic exposure to desert dust and other environmental particles prompts respiratory epithelium to further injury caused by a second group of harmful stimulus such as allergens, viral infections, cigarette smoke and toxic chemicals. The team will also assess the efficacy of the investigational drug ICG-001 that targets the WNT/β-catenin pathway, which is involved in the repair of damaged lung epithelial cells.
The second grant, of $1.5 million will be used over three years on the study “The Role of the Extracellular Matrix and Matrix Metalloproteinases in Pulmonary Fibrosis.” In collaboration with Derek Radisky, PhD, of the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, researchers will examine how silicate-containing desert dust inhalation causes pulmonary fibrosis (lung inflammation and scarring). The team will investigate the role of matrix metalloproteinase-3, an enzyme that may be implicated in the development of pulmonary fibrosis by breaking down structural proteins in lung tissue and releasing protein fragments that can irritate the lungs. The researchers will also examine a new treatment using investigational drug candidates that inhibit specific matrix metalloproteinases.