The Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mining Safety and Health has granted $750,000 to a project to investigate how silica, coal, and other mining dusts contribute to the development of progressive lung fibrosis.
Led by researchers at the Chicago Mining Education and Research (MinER) Center from the University of Illinois (UIC), the project will focus on determining the exact composition of different types of dusts associated with mining in the Appalachian region.
Based on the findings, researchers will then expose mice to several combinations of these dusts’ components to determine whether there is a specific mixture that is particularly damaging to the lungs.
“We know that coal and silica dusts increase the risk for development of black lung disease, but we don’t know much about how mixtures behave, and what combinations are worse for lung health,” Leonard Go, MD, assistant professor at the UIC School of Public Health and investigator on the project, said in a news release. “We want to be able to create ‘mine dust risk profiles’ for pulmonary disease that can be used to inform policy and improve regulations limiting exposure to these dusts.”
The team will evaluate changes in genes’ levels by inducing mining dust mixtures into the lung tissue of mice. This approach will allow them to identify potential biomarkers of pulmonary fibrosis development and progression.
Researchers will also analyze publicly available data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration on respirable dust in several U.S. coal mines, as well as employment data. This will help them further explore the existence of any specific coal dust profile that could be linked to higher rates of lung disease among mineworkers.
“We believe there may have been a significant change in the respirable dust miners are exposed to, and this may be driving the increase in cases,” Go said. “The more we know about the risk profiles of these dusts, both individually and in combination with each other, the better the industry will be able to focus their monitoring and protective efforts.”