UNMC receives $1.7 million NIOSH grant to study ways to negate lung injury from biohazards

by Vicky Cerino
October 19, 2021

Image with file name: 02_06_2020JillPoole001.jpg

Researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center have received a $1.7 million grant to study ways to repair lung disease caused by exposure to biohazards, particularly agricultural dust.

The four-year grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) aims to define the lung repair, recovery and remodeling processes following acute and repetitive exposure to biohazards - such as endotoxins - particularly in food processing and meat packing plants. The funding is a continuation of work supported by the Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health at the UNMC College of Public Health.

When inhaled, dust containing endotoxins - parts of bacteria found in occupational settings - often triggers inflammatory responses in the lungs, resulting in cough, sputum and shortness of breath with activity.

There’s no approved therapy for this type of lung injury, said Jill Poole, MD, chief of the UNMC Department of Internal Medicine's Division of Allergy and Immunology and principal investigator of the grant. Todd Wyatt, PhD, and Debra Romberger, MD, are co-investigators of the grant.

The team hopes to change that moving forward.

"We’re looking for new therapies as well as biomarkers indicative of disease," Dr. Poole said. "Currently, we try to use medications for asthma and allergy and chronic bronchitis, which helps some, but doesn’t reverse the disease. A lot of times the occupational exposure-induced lung damage is permanent, and people aren’t quite the same."

"The inability to adequately treat workers following occupational inflammatory exposure leads to chronic disease, and workers with respiratory disease have a higher incidence of filing for disability compared to those without respiratory disease."

Not only are exposures to endotoxin high in agricultural production, but also emerging sectors, she said, such as waste treatment, recycling, biotech food production and processing industries.

"It’s important to find effective treatments because workers don’t always wear their masks to protect themselves while working in agricultural environments," Dr. Poole said. "We’re looking at how we might reverse lung inflammation. We usually see the workers in clinic once they’ve suffered lung injuries."

The team has been studying the impact of complex dust exposure in agricultural workers for more than a decade and will continue its NIOSH-funded work using mouse models.

Results of these studies play an important role, Dr. Poole said, because they lay the pre-clinical groundwork for understanding key cellular and mediator responses, and ultimately will help develop new strategies to treat occupational exposure-induced lung inflammation prior to the development of irreversible lung disease.

"Occupational lung diseases are the primary cause of occupation-associated illness in the U.S. based on frequency, severity and preventability of the illnesses," Dr. Poole said. "Most occupational lung diseases are caused by repeated, long-term exposure to hazardous agents, but even a severe single exposure can damage the lungs."

Debra J. Romberger, MD, grant co-investigator and Henry J. Lehnhoff Professor and chair, UNMC Department of Internal Medicine, said the team hopes their proposed strategies will bring new ways to reverse disease in those workers as well as many other dusty environments. "As agricultural practices have changed over the years, animal production occurs in confinement facilities with thousands of animals (poultry, hogs, cattle) and workers in those spaces are increasingly exposed to dust that can cause disease," she said.