The U.S. Department of Defense awarded $11.5 million in grants to researchers at National Jewish Health, one of the leading respiratory hospitals in the country, to support two research projects investigating lung disease, including pulmonary fibrosis, in soldiers deployed to Southwest Asia.
The projects will also test potential new approaches in treating pulmonary fibrosis, as well as lung diseases like chronic asthma and severe bronchiolitis obliterans, which these veterans also often develop. Soldiers who fought in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq are known to suffer from lung diseases at almost twice the rate of those deployed elsewhere.
“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,” Dr. Greg Downey, the projects’ principal investigator and a professor of medicine at National Jewish Health, said in a press release. “We will also test experimental medications that target the two pathways.”
Downey will collaborate with Dr. Cecile Rose, a professor of medicine at National Jewish Health, to analyze clinical and epidemiological information, as well as biological samples from 100 veterans previously deployed to the area who developed lung disease.
One of the projects will investigate how desert dust, which contains silicate, may be causing pulmonary fibrosis, focusing on the role of an enzyme called matrix metalloproteinase-3 (MMP3). This enzyme may be causing inflammation and scarring in the lungs by breaking down structural proteins and releasing fragments, which are irritants for the lungs. The researchers will also test a new compound that inhibits certain MMPs as a potential therapy for pulmonary fibrosis.
The other, larger project will explore the so-called “two-hit hypothesis.” According to this hypothesis, chronic exposure to desert dust or other particles makes the lungs more prone to injury by a second irritant, such as toxic chemicals, cigarette smoke, allergy causing agents, or viruses. The scientists will test a potential new drug compound called ICG-001 and its role in repairing lung tissue via a biological pathway called the WNT/β-catenin pathway.
More than 2.8 million military personnel, contractors, and other workers have been deployed by the Defense Department to Southwest Asia, especially Afghanistan and Iraq, since 2001. These veterans have developed a wide range of lung diseases at increased rates, for reasons not fully understood. But factors such as exposure to desert dust and other pollutants, including smoke from burning garbage pits and industrial fires, could be to blame.