WVU awarded $2.1 million to study air pollution’s effect on the cardiovascular system

West Virginia University cardiovascular researcher Timothy R. Nurkiewicz, Ph.D., has received a $2.1 million grant to study the effects of air pollution particles and engineered nanoparticles on the cardiovascular system. 

The grant, which distributes funds over a five-year period, is awarded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.  

Nurkiewicz is a microvascular specialist who studies tiny blood vessels, called arterioles, capillaries, 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. 

 Timothy R. Nurkiewicz, Ph.D.
Particulate matter is one of six common pollutants for which the Environmental Protection Agency sets National Ambient Air Quality Standards. 

“Our hypothesis is that combustion source particulate matter impairs the vascular and immune systems in such a manner that blood flow to tissues is greatly compromised,” Nurkiewicz said.  “We’re focusing primarily on diesel particles because they’re environmentally relevant and one of the most prolific components of ambient air pollution.”

“Everyone has been stuck behind that ominous large truck spewing out black soot,” he said.  “But we are exposed to particulate matter from more sources than exhaust from semi-tractor trailers.”

According to Nurkiewicz, school buses and large vehicles associated with construction, city upkeep or road maintenance constantly run, putting particles into the air. 

“As a community we frequently breathe in particles from these sources” he said.  “Our population and infrastructure are growing fast. However, we cannot expect the government on any level to appropriately regulate air quality and personal exposure if we don’t first have a full understanding of the health effects.”

The grant also funds studies of the fairly new area of nanoparticle research.

“There used to be a time when everyone thought asbestos was the wave of the future,” Nurkiewicz said.  “Years later we know the detrimental health effects of asbestos, and we’re still struggling to deal with it because its toxicity was not properly characterized.  We aren’t saying that will be the case with nanoparticles, but if nanotechnology is to reach its full potential, its health effects must be clearly identified, and this grant shows us that the NIH agrees.”

The grant funds research to help assess possible risks related to the particles.  Major risks include impairing the ability of blood vessels to dilate, and immune system activation. If blood vessels cannot get bigger, then blood cannot flow.

“The immune system normally activates when bacteria or viruses invade the body,” he said.  “But, our preliminary findings suggest particle exposure activates our immune system. If you are sick, you want your immune system to be active so the body can heal itself.  If you’re not sick, it can be very bad because healthy tissues can be impaired or destroyed in the process.”

According to the researcher, the risks associated with the “two-hit” model are much greater.  In a two-hit model, one’s health is already compromised by a preexisting disease such as hypertension, diabetes or obesity before exposure to particulate matter.

Nurkiewicz’s studies will investigate the two-hit model with the intent to identify diseases or conditions that may increase susceptibility to air pollution exposure.

"The effects of air pollution on cardiovascular function, including its ability to intensify cardiovascular disease, have become quite clear,” said Matthew A. Boegehold, Ph.D., director of the WVU Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Cardiovascular Sciences (CIRCS).  “But, we are still a long way from understanding the mechanisms by which these changes arise.  Dr. Nurkiewicz's project, along with similar studies, could serve as an important foundation for developing better clinical treatments for this problem."

Nurkiewicz’s lab will conduct the bulk of the research.  Collaborating researchers include Vince Castranova, Ph.D., from NIOSH and WVU’s Judy Delp, Ph.D., and Jeff Frisbee, Ph.D.

"Dr. Nurkiewicz has assembled a creative, highly skilled group of investigators to assist him with this project,” Boegehold said.  “The data they collect will not only answer the important questions currently outlined in the grant, but will also lead to new questions, and possibly other exciting avenues of investigation in this area."

For more information on the CIRCS visit www.hsc.wvu.edu/circs/.

- WVU -

For more information:
Amy Johns, HSC News Service, (304) 293-7087
cw: 09-05-07

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