Posted April 22, 2020, 12:23PM

Lung Disease May Be Linked to Neighborhood Air Quality 

Discoveries Air Quality
Illustration by Azat Valeez,


A pilot project at NCCU’s Research Center in Minority Institutions will help scientists understand how air quality may affect people differently depending on where they live and their racial background. 

Vijay Sivaraman, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, studies the contributions of microbes and environmental toxins on lung inflammation, a condition that may lead to pneumonia and even death. 

“Lungs are like a big sponge, and we are constantly breathing, so inflammatory, toxic things are coming into our lungs,” Sivaraman said. 

“We are trying to understand and evaluate air quality in targeted areas of Durham to monitor levels of particulate matter in the air and whether it is linked to lung inflammation and distress.” 

The body’s immune system normally helps combat infections with neurons, immune cells and proteins that break down or remove harmful bacteria and pollutants. 

“These can help clear the nastiness in the lungs by smothering it or sometimes gobbling it up,” Sivaraman said. “They may also trigger the lungs to produce mucous, which causes us to cough to expel the harmful substance.” 

To more closely examine lung function and response, Sivaraman will conduct a population-based analysis in Durham to determine which zip codes have higher percentages of people arriving at emergency rooms with pulmonary infections and compare it to census track and racial data.  

“We hope to also find out if there are higher instances of lung disorders and distress associated with an individual’s racial background,” he added. 

A number of NCCU students also will be involved in this research, collecting air samples to analyze pollutants, such as particulate matter, and conducting toxicity students on human and mouse airway cells to analyze the effects, Sivaraman said. 

The two-year project, funded by NCCU's Research Centers in Minority Education grant program, will generate data that can be used to re-examine public health policies and ultimately help communities improve residents’ health. 

$1.5M Grant to Investigate New Treatment for High LDL Cholesterol 

Dayami LopezAssociate Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Dayami Lopez, Ph.D., was awarded a $1.48 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to study better methods of treating high cholesterol and preventing heart disease. 

The four-year grant will advance Lopez’s research into regulation of low-density lipoproteins, also known as LDL cholesterol, considered a major risk factor in heart disease. 

“Heart disease causes about a quarter of all deaths each year,” Lopez said. “It occurs because of a combination of genetic mutations and environmental factors, including lack of exercise and too much fat in the diet.” 

Statins, a class of medicines known to block cholesterol production in the liver, are widely used to treat patients with high LDL. However, not all patients respond well to statins. Some have serious side effects, and others, including those with a genetic marker for high cholesterol, fail to improve. 

A secondary way to control cholesterol levels by regulating proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin type 9, or PCSK9, has been in use since 2015. But this treatment is expensive, costing hundreds of dollars a month, and often not covered by health insurance, Lopez said. 

Lopez’s grant will enable her to continue working to develop a third type of treatment to modulate PCSK9 using the Alpha 1 antitrypsin protein, a method expected to lower treatment costs and help more people with genetically based high cholesterol. 

Because of genetic differences, some ethnic groups, including African Americans, are at greater risk of having additional complications other than just high cholesterol. These studies have the potential to personalize treatment for patients suffering from multiple cardiometabolic risk factors. 

“We will be using cell lines from three different ethnic groups: Caucasian, Asian and African American,” Lopez said. 

Lopez will work in collaboration with Sean Kimbro, Ph.D., associate professor of biology, who will support the project through his expertise in the study of health disparities. 

NCCU and Duke Partnership Brings Science to Life 

Ethno Drama Scene

“Support from the National Institute for General Medical Sciences underscores the value of NCCU’s research mission,” said Eun K. Park, Ph.D., associate provost and dean of the Division of Research and Sponsored Programs at NCCU. “Dr. Lopez’s research team is at the forefront of international efforts to reduce heart disease mortality rates, particularly in minority populations.” 

Television shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Chicago Med” have found success serving up medical drama as entertainment. 

Now, NCCU and members of the Duke Clinical & Translational Science Institute are turning that idea around by bringing health information to audiences as theatrical productions that are both entertaining and educational. 

The plays, known as ethnodramas, are designed to improve the health of underserved and underrepresented populations while advancing the field of translational science, which is the process of leveraging research findings to create practical benefits for individuals and communities. 

In June 2019, the group produced “Write Now We Will Heal,” a play that focused on cervical cancer prevention and screening by depicting cultural experiences and belief systems that resonate with people of color. 

“The ethnodrama experience is not only a theatrical play tackling the subject of HPV and cervical cancer, but also an opportunity to come out and participate in panel discussions with cancer survivors, oncologists and health workers who are familiar with the disease,” said NCCU associate professor of psychology Jonathan Livingston, Ph.D., whose research contributed to the production content. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women develop cervical cancer at rates of 8.4% per 100,000 individuals and Hispanic women at a rate of 9.1% per year. Rates for white women are slightly lower, at 7%. 

The drama was written by award-winning poet, playwright, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill visiting professor Dasan Ahanu. The plot involves J’Condria, a young woman writer who is struggling with the news that her mother may have cervical cancer and how she processes that information with close friends. Stephanie “Asabi” Howard, Ph.D., NCCU Theatre Department chair and associate professor, served as director. The production was staged on campus at NCCU, at the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham and at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. 

Be on the lookout for more dramas based on health research in 2020 and beyond. 

Investigating Why Students from Rural Areas Eschew Stem 

Cherise Harrington, PH.D.

Why do so few rural students go into science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields when choosing their careers? 

That question is being asked by associate health education professor Cherise Harrington, Ph.D., and several colleagues with help from a $350,000 grant provided by the National Science Foundation.  

In today’s highly technological work climate, STEM subjects are important skills for high school students to master. However, the type of community in which they live can help determine which students take on the academic challenge. 

Previous research examined differences such as STEM teacher pay, availability of laboratory facilities, and the range of advanced-placement class offerings in rural high schools. In many rural areas, families simply lack funds to send their sons and daughters off to college. Harrington said there also may be social factors in play. 

“We will conduct structured interviews and focus groups to examine barriers impacting student retention in STEM subjects and to examine any social determinants,” Harrington said. “The results will help us gain an understanding of the factors behind the lower attainment.” In North Carolina, approximately 40% of the school-age population lives in a rural community, compared to just over 20% nationwide, according to the Center for Public Education. As principal investigator for the project, Harrington will lead a multidisciplinary team of researchers from psychology, computer science, business, and social work. 

Harrington’s co-investigator, Donna M. Grant, chair of the Computer Information Systems program at NCCU, said those working on the project have a combined 70-plus years of experience working on health and social disparities issues. 

“Our results will provide a better understanding of factors affecting the STEM-based attainment of rural students of color,” Grant added. The project will start with interviews and focus groups to learn more about the barriers to STEM advancement.  

A second phase will involve a pilot study examining the effectiveness of GO STEM (Gaining Opportunities in STEM), a program designed to recruit more minority students onto STEM-based career tracks. 

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