Infant respiratory disease: Project receives federal grant of $2 million

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Natalie Johnson, assistant professor at Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health, has received the Outstanding New Environmental Scientist award from National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a center of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for her research on infant respiratory disease. The award, worth just over $2 million, is for a multiyear project on the mechanisms of particulate matter-driven infant respiratory disease.

Since 1966, NIEHS researchers and grantees have illustrated the effects of air pollution and exposure to asbestos and lead. Johnson continues this line of inquiry by studying how prenatal exposure to particle pollution in the air is associated with increased lower respiratory tract infections in infants. The global prevalence of childhood respiratory illnesses is a major public health concern, as lower-respiratory tract infections may result in infant death, persistent lung damage and predisposition to various lung diseases, such as asthma. Johnson’s research will enable a better understanding of genetic and environmental determinants of infant respiratory health, identify children at risk of particulate matter-related diseases and establish preventive strategies.

Johnson will use this research project grant to purchase respiratory phenotyping equipment, travel to conferences and to attend annual meetings with a career advisory committee. “This is a unique research grant with a career development component that allows for me to establish an external committee to advise on the project aims,” Johnson said. “I will have the opportunity to learn from experts in air pollution, pulmonary immunology, oxidative stress and gene-environment interactions. This award will, without a doubt, allow me to begin an exciting new research program focused on multiple determinants of infant health, including infectious disease, environmental exposure and genetic predisposition.”

Upon launching in 2006, the ONES awards have identified outstanding scientists at formative stages in their careers. This NIEHS program has funded groundbreaking research initiatives in environmental health sciences. A component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, NIEHS focuses on the environmental causes of diseases.

According to a Feb. 25 article in The Battalion, Texas A&M’s student newspaper, Johnson and her team study air pollutants by exposing young mice to dust mites, a common allergen for humans.

“What we found is the mice that were prenatal exposed to the particulate matter air pollution mixture could not mount as strong a response to the house dust mite as those exposed to the filter air control,” Johnson told The Battalion. “What we think we have is this window of immune suppression where now the mice might be more susceptible to developing respiratory infections. This new grant is going to now merge the prenatal exposure model with an infant exposure to respiratory syncytial virus, which is one of the leading causes of childhood hospitalizations.”

More at the School of Public Health

News coverage: Johnson awarded $2 million grant, The Battalion (Texas A&M), Feb. 25, 2018