A growing concern for environmentalists and health experts is the worsening of air quality affecting people across the globe. Researchers have largely focused on the effects of a single air pollutant, such as one type of particle or gas, on lung health.

Salik Hussain, assistant professor of physiology and pharmacology at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, however, is taking a unique approach by studying a mixture of particles and gasses on lung health, essentially recreating the air that people inhale in the real world.

Salik Hussain.

Salik Hussain.

“The current scientific literature on pollutant effects on the lungs is not reflective of real-world scenarios,” Hussain said. “The published literature on this is used to inform decisions by the Environmental Protection Agency.”

With a newly awarded $3 million grant from the National Institute of Health, Hussain will study how a combination of air pollutants affect lung health.

“The grant is specifically used to study how our environment can change the ability of the lungs to regenerate after an acute injury,” Hussain said.

One example of diseases that cause extensive lung damage is COVID-19. Progenitor cells, similar to stem cells, that are located in the lungs have the ability to reform the cells that were damaged from the injury. Hussain is studying how the air in our environment reprograms the progenitor cells to repair the injury.

Hussain has two main goals for his research. One is to inform regulation by providing agencies with data that is more representative of real-world pollutant exposure. Hussain said that 133 million individuals in the U.S. inhale ozone and particles at levels that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s and the World Health Organization’s guideline limits.

Nairrita Majumder, a graduate student in Hussain’s lab, said that current regulations are based on data from research on exposure to single pollutants rather than a combination of pollutants. 

“In real life, we get exposed to different components of the environment at the same time and they might interact with each other and induce a change that is different from individual exposure,” Majumder said. “Therefore, we think it's important that environmental regulations are based on co-exposure rather than individual exposure.”

Hussain’s lab will perform well-controlled exposure studies that are realistic and are as close to real-world exposures as possible. They plan to submit those publications for peer review in international journals. Hussain said that is where their role ends in their pursuit to influence air pollution regulations.

“I will try my best to communicate with [agencies] also, and to communicate our findings in person,” Hussain said. “I will be presenting multiple times at the National Center for Environmental Health Sciences, so that will be a possibility of essentially involving the Federal government officials about [this research].”

The second purpose is to elaborate on how the environment makes us more susceptible to acute lung injury and the process of lung healing. Hussain said they can identify some candidates, genes or proteins, which can be further developed in the lungs as a treatment of acute lung injuries.

“One aspect of my research is to identify the effect of environmental co-exposure in vulnerable population and people suffering from acute lung injury,” Majumder said.

Hussain will investigate how a combination of pollutants in the air affects the development of acute lung injury and how it affects the lung’s ability to regenerate after acute lung injury.  

“We start with a simplistic model in which we have black and ozone, which are very common in the world,” Hussain said. “Then we’ll look at environmental particles that are unique to certain areas of the world due to specific types of human activity. For example, silica is more common in areas where mining occurs.”

The grant awarded to Hussain helps fund groundbreaking research. Hussain said that it usually takes several application submissions to be awarded the grant, but his application was accepted on the first attempt.

“This is actually selecting which will be the next people leading environmental health sciences,” Hussain said.