UVM lung research

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(Host) The University of Vermont has a special team of researchers peering into human lungs at the cellular level, trying to figure out a way to prevent damage from pollutants. Commentator Ruth Page says that the process is very complex.

(Page) How much air do you take into your lungs in a single day? The average is from eight to ten thousand liters. They put oxygen into the eight to ten thousand liters of blood that pass through your lungs over the course of just one day.

Your lungs are the only internal organ directly open to the atmosphere around you. If the air isn’t clean, the dirt goes straight to your lungs.

Do you like going to ice-hockey games and ice shows? That Zamboni machine that’s such fun to watch pollutes the air you’re breathing with high levels of nitrogen dioxide.

The University of Vermont has a research group studying the many health problems caused by various pathogens in the air we breathe here in Vermont, and how our lungs deal with them.

We have dust-pollution from our active granite and marble quarries that can affect many workers’ lungs. Researchers say most quarry-workers affected were also cigarette smokers, so it’s hard for researchers to sort out which pollutant caused which effects.

The many wood-stoves in Vermont also release quantities of nitrogen dioxide into our air, another pollution source. And this is considered to be a state with unusually clean air.

UVM’s medical college is one of only four in the country with a program approved by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Its environmental pathology program, started in 1995, has made considerable progress in understanding the intricate work of our lungs.

The epithelial cells that line the mucus membranes of your nose, throat and lungs are the ones first struck by whatever you inhale. The Medical College team says the reaction of those cells governs what other lung cells do that can lead to lung disease. So researchers concentrate first on epithelial cells, hoping to stop the first signal.

The vital importance of this work is obvious, if you think about not only what we inhale outdoors, but indoors: the animal dander, radon, tobacco smoke, chemicals you use for cleaning and other purposes in home and garage.

Lungs have sixty types of cells, specialized to perform a myriad of different jobs. As one cell-type is affected, it communicates with other cell types in a cascade of reactions. If researchers can work out how the signaling pathway develops, they hope to be able to interrupt it, as early as possible in the process, as a way to prevent disease.

Each of the leading investigators on the team concentrates on a different challenge, doing work at the cellular level, concerned with gene expression. They use specialized microscopes such as an atomic-force microscope, to help analyze the minutiae of inner-lung mechanisms.

Since it is impossible ever to provide utterly pollution-free air, even if we were all doing everything practicable, this work may be pivotal in protecting humans from diseases we ourselves cause by our sometimes casual use of the Earth’s air as a garbage-dump.

This is Ruth Page in Shelburne, Vermont.

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