DURHAM, N.C. – Duke University scientists have received a five-year, $2.6 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to study molecular mechanisms that can help our bodies fight respiratory inflammation caused by air pollution.

Documenting how exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5), an extremely common and highly irritating pollutant, affects human lungs’ ability to resolve and recover from the inflammation will be among the study’s main thrusts. Resolving acute lung inflammation in a timely manner is essential for avoiding chronic inflammatory diseases such as asthma.

The scientists will also seek to determine if and why the mechanisms work better for some people than others.

“We’re specifically going to be looking to see if there are differences between how exposure to PM2.5 affects lung inflammation and its resolution in men and women, and in asthmatics versus non-asthmatics,” said Junfeng “Jim” Zhang, professor of global and environmental health at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

What the Duke team learns could lead to new interventions for asthma and other inflammation-related breathing difficulties triggered by exposure to PM2.5 and, ultimately, help speed lungs’ recovery after the exposure.

Zhang’s co-principal investigators on the study are Amy Herring, Sara & Charles Ayres Distinguished Professor of Statistical Science, Global Health, and Biostatistics and Bioinformatics, and Susan Murphy, associate professor in obstetrics and gynecology.

“Amy has the biostatistical expertise needed to analyze complex public health data and Susan brings expertise in epigenetics, which is the study of how environmental factors can influence how genes work, so both will be essential to this project’s success,” Zhang said.

Yan Lin, currently a postdoctoral fellow in Zhang’s lab, will also play a key role in analyzing biospecimens for molecular biomarkers associated with inflammation.

Researchers from Imperial College London will collaborate on the study.

NIEHS is part of the National Institutes of Health. Funding for the new Duke-led research comes through NIH grant #1R01ES035457-01.