Two UTHCT scientists investigate effects of second-hand smoke with funding from Flight Attendants Medical Research Institute

Friday, February 17, 2006

Until smoking was first banned on short airline flights in 1987, few professionals were exposed to tobacco smoke as much as flight attendants. And medical research had shown that such long-term exposure to second-hand smoke jeopardized their health.

In response, the Flight Attendants Medical Research Institute was formed in September 2000. It was part of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit against the tobacco industry. Tobacco companies paid $300 million to set up FAMRI, a nonprofit medical research foundation.

Two scientists at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler have received grants from FAMRI, said UTHSCT President Dr. Kirk A. Calhoun. They are Steven Idell, MD, Ph.D., UTHSCT’s vice president for research, and Barry Starcher, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry at UTHSCT.

Dr. Idell is examining second-hand smoke’s effects on how blood clotting relates to scar formation in the lungs, and Dr. Starcher is studying second-hand smoke’s effects on sun-damaged skin. Each received a three-year, $324,000 grant from FAMRI. Dr. Idell is in the first year of his grant; Dr. Starcher is in the second year of his.

Dr. Idell is investigating if exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke helps contribute to lung injury. He and his research team think this passive exposure causes clotting in the lung sacs and airways outside the lung’s blood vessels. Recent studies have shown that blood clots in these areas may cause lung injury and scarring, Dr. Idell said.

If his research indicates a link between passive smoke exposure and blood clots forming in the lungs, his team will study the role of a specific protein in the breakdown of blood clots. This protein, called PAI-1, blocks the body’s process of dissolving clots. Amounts of PAI-1 increase when the lungs are infected or injured, Dr. Idell said.

“We’re trying to determine if too much PAI-1 is produced and then learn how to stop that process in the lungs to prevent injury,” Dr. Idell said.

Dr. Starcher is exploring the effects of tobacco smoke on skin that has already been exposed to daily doses of ultraviolet light. Small skin tumors form on the skin of the mice after 14 weeks of exposure to 20 seconds of ultraviolet light per day, he said. These tumors are similar to those that occur in humans after years of sun exposure. After 20 weeks of ultraviolet light, the skin of these mice are covered with squamous cell carcinomas, the most common type of skin cancer, he said.

Ultraviolet light radiation causes such a tremendous number of mutations in the skin cells that the body is unable to remove all of the damaged cells, he said. This results in uncontrolled replication of skin cells that ultimately become tumors.

Dr. Starcher and his team thought these skin tumors would be much worse after exposure to a combination of ultraviolet light and passive tobacco smoke. Instead, the smoke proved so toxic that it actually blocked the process by which ultraviolet light causes skin tumors, he said.

However, there is evidence that passive cigarette smoke negatively affects the skin of the mice. “The mice skin becomes thinner and more fragile, resulting in delayed wound healing and the inhibition – slowing down – of the immune response,” he said.

In future studies, Dr. Starcher and his team hope to identify the components of cigarette smoke that affect the prevention of tumor development. Dr. Starcher said. If this can be accomplished, it could lead to new therapies in cancer prevention, he said.

FAMRI’s mission is to sponsor scientific and medical research into the early detection, prevention, treatment, and cure of diseases and medical conditions caused by exposure to tobacco smoke. It does not support individuals who are currently receiving funds from the tobacco industry.

“The FAMRI grants provide unique and wonderful opportunities to understand the effects of second-hand tobacco smoke on the lungs. These and other foundation grants are important resources that allow UTHSCT scientists to expand their research. They are able to study new ways to protect the lungs against diseases caused by cigarette smoke exposure,” Dr. Idell said.

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