Dr. Kymberly Gowdy’s research into the influence of environmental chemicals on lung function and the immune system has received a boost in the form of a $450,000 award from the Health Effects Institute.

ECU researcher examines effects of pollutants on health

Dec. 21, 2015

By Jules Norwood
ECU News Services

The quality of the air we breathe can directly impact our health, and one East Carolina University researcher has received a major funding boost for her efforts to pinpoint how pollutants affect the cardiovascular system.

Dr. Kymberly Gowdy, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine, has received the Walter A. Rosenblith New Investigator Award for 2015 from the national Health Effects Institute (HEI). The award will provide $450,000 for Gowdy’s research into the influence of environmental chemicals on lung function and the immune system.
Dr. Kymberly Gowdy

The project will focus on how exposure to air pollutants may increase susceptibility to chronic diseases. The three-year study will examine the role of scavenger receptor-B1 (SR-B1) – a protein that acts as a receptor for high-density lipoprotein cholesterol – to shed new light on the mechanisms by which exposure to ozone may cause damage to the lungs and circulatory system.

Ozone, or trioxygen, is a pale blue gas that is present in low concentrations throughout the atmosphere. At higher concentrations, it can damage mucous and respiratory tissues.

“We know that inhaling pollutants affects the cardiovascular system,” said Gowdy, “but we’re still working on the mechanisms through which it happens.”

She hopes to learn more about the way ozone interacts with proteins and lipids in the lungs. The studies will be conducted by measuring levels of oxidized lipids — as well as pulmonary and vascular function —following ozone exposure in normal mice, compared with mice lacking the SR-B1 gene.

The additional funding, Gowdy said, will help with expansion of the lab to study other pollutants in addition to ozone and fund the addition of a postdoctoral researcher to the team. The award will also create opportunities for face-to-face interaction with leaders in the field who can provide input and feedback on her research.

In the third year, collaboration with Duke University will allow the study’s findings to be further examined using human subjects.

“I originally applied for this program to get some feedback on my research,” Gowdy said. “I never though I would get funding from such a great institution on the first try. It’s an honor, and I’m still in shock in some respects. It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Gowdy joined ECU’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in 2014. She has already been recognized by the American Association of Immunologists with both a Young Investigator Award and a Travel for Techniques Award.

Named for the first chair of the HEI Research Committee, the Walter A. Rosenblith New Investigator Award supports the work of a promising scientist early in his or her career. Applicants are chosen based on their potential for a productive research career in examining air pollution and its effects on health, the support provided by the applicant’s institution, the scientific merit of the research project and its relevance to HEI’s mission.

“The fact that the Health Effects Institute chose to grant its only New Investigator Award for this year to Dr. Gowdy speaks highly of the quality of her research program as perceived by her peers,” said Dr. David Taylor, chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.

The award has been granted annually since 1999, and past recipients include researchers from prestigious universities throughout the U.S., including University of Texas-Austin, Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvard School of Public Health and Yale University, as well as Uludag University in Turkey.

“The department is extremely pleased to have Dr. Gowdy as a member of its faculty,” Taylor added. “She provides additional strength to an excellent core of toxicology researchers, as well as to an emerging interdepartmental group who are conducting exceptionally high-quality research on the effects of exposure to environmental and natural toxins on biological systems — work that could have a positive impact on the population of eastern North Carolina.”