Project examines link between pollution, respiratory problems

Ground-level air pollution can cause a variety of health problems, and Kym Gowdy is taking a closer look at how and why. Her work, funded by a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, could help decrease the frequency of respiratory infections such as pneumonia.

“We know that when there are periods of high air pollution, people who are more exposed to that pollution are more susceptible to respiratory infections,” Gowdy said. “There are more hospitalizations for pneumonia around those times, and pneumonia is a huge concern to the U.S. and also other countries because we don’t have the best drugs to treat pneumonia, and some of our outcomes are pretty poor.”

Gowdy is working to pinpoint the role of ozone exposure in respiratory infection.

The focus of Gowdy’s work in the Brody School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology is on the mechanisms by which environmental exposures can lead to diseases of the lungs, cardiovascular system and immune system. Her current project centers on ozone, an air pollutant present in low concentrations throughout the ground-level atmosphere. As ozone levels increase due to rising temperatures, increasing vehicle traffic and other factors, it can damage mucous and respiratory tissues.

More than one third of the U.S. population lives in areas exceeding regulatory standards for ozone, according Project examines link between pollution, respiratory problems to the grant summary. While it has been shown to impact immune system response, the specific mechanisms and reasons remain poorly understood.

“We have found that after … ozone exposure, we can detect red blood cell products in the lung, specifically hemoglobin,” she said. “What that hemoglobin can actually do, if it’s not cleared properly, is it can impair your immune system. Therefore, your immune system can’t fight off these respiratory pathogens as well.”

Using animal models and human samples, Gowdy’s lab is studying how immune cells can handle pathogens before and after ozone exposure.

Gowdy came to ECU in 2014 and has been recognized by the American Association of Immunologists with a Young Investigator Award and a Travel for Techniques Award. Her project was recognized by the NIH as the top priority for funding in its study section.

Ozone concentrations are highest in more populated areas with high levels of traffic and industrial sources. Since it is formed by the interaction of sunlight with those emissions, levels can increase during hot weather. Gowdy said people susceptible to respiratory infections should try to avoid exposure.

“Just keep an eye on the air quality, and if you are someone who has a pre-existing lung disease or even cardiovascular disease, try to limit exposure outside when there are high levels of ozone in the atmosphere,” she said.