Environmental health risks are focus of new UAB program

The Program in Environmental and Translational Medicine combines clinical care with research to prevent, treat diseases caused from air pollution, water contamination, other causes.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham has created a Program in Environmental and Translational Medicine, a multi-faceted approach to dealing with health issues tied to environmental origins.

enviro_medicine_story“The environment can have a profound effect on human health,” said Veena Antony, M.D., a professor in the UAB School of Medicine’s Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine and director of the new program. “Some environmental issues arise from pollution or man-made toxins, but others are natural, from bacteria present in the air, water or soil, for example. This program will study and treat the effects on human health from any environmental exposures.”

The program has three components: providing clinical care for patients with disease tied to environmental exposure; public education on the health effects of such exposure; and a research component that will work to better assess the risks of exposure, identify sources of exposure and search for ways to mitigate or reduce exposure.

“This initiative will put UAB at the forefront of environmental medicine,” said Victor Thannickal, M.D., professor and director of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. “We will bring together experts from across campus — physicians, public health professionals, engineers, chemists and biologists — in a wide-ranging collaboration of basic science, translational research and community outreach.”

One of the first projects of the program is the Birmingham Clean Air Initiative, a multi-disciplinary effort to solve air pollution problems. It involves the UAB Schools of Medicine and Public Health, in partnership with the Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham Southern College, Jefferson County Department of Health, Southern Environmental Law Center and GASP, a community advocacy group.

“In addition to improving lung health for those in Central Alabama, this initiative will add to the body of knowledge about the health impact of air pollution on people worldwide, a growing problem in industrialized and developing nations in which public policy promoting clean air often lags behind economic development,” said Antony. “These findings also hold promise for treatment of lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pulmonary fibrosis.”

“Chronic lung disease is endemic in the Birmingham area,” said Thannickal. “Some, such as COPD and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, have no cure. Prevention, or at least early diagnosis, is essential.” 

One of the first research projects the program will launch will search for bio-markers of lung disease through the development of an environmental sensor “nose” that allows for rapid, immediate testing of exhaled breath, similar to the alcohol breath analyzer.”

The analyzer is a simple device. A person breathes into a chilled tube; the warm breath condenses in the tube, and its condensate can be studied for what Antony calls signatures to specific exposure to air-pollution sources.

“These signatures will give us early warning of potential lung injury from specific toxins in the air,” she said. “Standard lung-function tests detect disease when it has already begun to damage the lungs. We need a way to diagnose lung injury much sooner, so we can intervene and begin taking the necessary steps to minimize the effects.”

The program will hold a multidisciplinary symposium on Environmental Lung Health Education and Research on Sept. 21, 2012, in Birmingham.

“UAB has a strong commitment to lead efforts to improve the health of the people of Alabama,” said Antony. “The creation of the Program for Environmental and Translational Medicine will bring together a spectrum of disciplines to address this challenge and educate the community on the impact of the environment on human health.”