05/01/2007

Air Pollution Linked to Cardiovascular Disease, WVU Researcher Says

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A new study from researchers at West Virginia University finds that diesel exhaust can compromise the arteries’ abilities to regulate blood flow.  The elderly, males and post-menopausal females are at greatest risk, based on animal model studies.

Air pollution particles are traditionally associated with lung disease but Timothy R. Nurkiewicz, Ph.D., assistant professor at the WVU School of Medicine, says that pollution problems are not limited to the lungs.  His research focuses, in part, on the effects of particle matter exposure on the cardiovascular system.

Nurkiewicz is presenting the research findings at the American Physiological Society Annual Meeting, April 28 – May 2, 2007 in Washington, D.C. He will present on behalf of the WVU Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Cardiovascular Sciences (CIRCS).

“We can breathe in larger particles without damaging the cardiovascular system,” Nurkiewicz, a CIRCS researcher, explained. “This is possible because the larger particles are filtered out or captured in our noses and upper respiratory tract, but smaller particles, like ultra-fine particle matter and nanoparticles penetrate deep into our lungs, where oxygen exchange occurs.”

The particles may then enter the body and affect a blood vessel’s ability to dilate.

Air pollution particles are traditionally associated with lung disease but Timothy R. Nurkiewicz, Ph.D., assistant professor at the WVU School of Medicine, says that pollution problems are not limited to the lungs.  His research focuses, in part, on the effects of particle matter exposure on the cardiovascular system.   
 

Particulate matter occurs naturally from things such as sand and rock erosion or fires and volcanic ash.  However, it is most commonly man-made and results primarily from the combustion of fossil fuels such as wood, coal and oil.  Frequent sources of particulate matter include engine exhaust (particularly diesel engines), industrial or manufacturing processes and power plants.

Nurkiewicz is a microvascular specialist – he studies tiny blood vessels, called arterioles and venules that are not visible to the naked eye.  They govern the parameters of blood flow, nutrient delivery and waste removal in the body.

“When muscles work, they require more blood,” he said.  “The arterioles must dilate in order to deliver more blood.” 

Nurkiewicz’s research with rat models demonstrates that after exposure to particulate matter, not only do the arterioles no longer dilate, but in some instances they also constrict or get smaller.

“When fresh blood and oxygen do not reach tissues and organs, like the heart and brain, these tissues malfunction and parts of them can die,” said Nurkiewicz.  “This may result in a heart attack or stroke.  What’s worse is that certain populations may be at greater risk after exposure to air pollution.” 

Nurkiewicz’s experimental models suggest youth and the elderly are more likely to experience health complications after exposure to air pollution. 

“This may not be a huge surprise to those who live in big cities, but it is a very serious threat,” said Nurkiewicz.  “Developing areas such as West Virginia must take it seriously, especially when we are already burdened with diabetes and obesity epidemics.”

According to Nurkiewicz, collaboration with other CIRCS researchers is absolutely essential for developing effective new strategies to prevent and treat cardiovascular complications associated with air pollution.

“If we can identify which components of air pollution are making people sick, then we hold the first pieces of the puzzle necessary to make our air cleaner and healthier,” he said.

“We are dealing with very difficult questions that can have a dramatic impact on the health of many West Virginians,” Matthew A. Boegehold, Ph.D., CIRCS director, said.  “It takes a team approach to find these answers.”

“We use different tools and have vastly different backgrounds and approaches,” said Boegehold. “But we’re all fundamentally interested in the same thing – reaching a better understanding of cardiovascular biology and medicine, for the sake of our current, as well as future generations.”

Co-investigators for the research study include Rhonda D. Prisby, PhD, and Judy Muller-Delp, PhD, both of CIRCS.  For more information on the CIRCS visit www.hsc.wvu.edu/circs/.

 

- WVU -


07-095
For more information:
Steve Bovino, HSC News Service, (304) 293-7087
bovinost@wvuh.com
cw:05-01-07

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