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VOL. 128 | NO. 221 | Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Cormier Brings Asthma Research to UTHSC

By Michael Waddell

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More than $2.5 million in research grant money has been transferred to The University of Tennessee Health Science Center following associate professor Dr. Stephania Cormier’s move to the college earlier this year.

Cormier will use the funds to complete further research into asthma, particularly its effects on infants and young children.

“We’re studying whether or not we can prevent the respiratory tract viral infections.”

–Dr. Stephania Cormier

Cormier began studying asthma for personal reasons, having had asthma since she was a young girl – and her condition having always been misdiagnosed.

“What I noticed in high school while playing basketball was that if I had viral upper respiratory tract infections I would have asthma exacerbations that actually required me going to seek medical attention,” Cormier said. “It was never properly diagnosed. It was considered chronic bronchitis.”

Cormier’s research background is in pulmonary immunology, and she has studied asthma for the past 20 years. She attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge beginning in 2003 and then completed her postdoctoral work at The Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., where she began examining a particular cell type in asthma.

She moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.

“I moved to New Orleans shortly after Katrina to help rebuild because they had lost a lot of faculty,” said Cormier, who then joined the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans in 2007.

She decided to move her research to Memphis early this year and joined UTHSC’s Pediatric Department in April. The grants have been in the transferral process since then.

Cormier will use more than $1.6 million in funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences over the next five years to study the effect of combustion-generated particulate pollution on infant respiratory health and the development of asthma.

Memphis is the perfect petri dish for such a study due to fairly high pollution and airborne particulates. Particulate matter from combustion includes vehicular exhaust, wood burning or cigarette smoke.

Cormier’s team will research how exposure to particulate matter increases severity of influenza in infants, whether it affects lung and immune function, and what role the airway epithelium plays in immune response.

“We’re studying whether or not we can prevent the respiratory tract viral infections and reduce the severity of those in response to pollution,” said Cormier, who brought five members of her staff at LSU with her to the Memphis research lab.

Cormier will also utilize $727,500 of a more than $1 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a subsidiary of the National Institutes of Health, to research the mechanisms responsible for the influence of age on asthma development to get a better understanding of infant immunity so ultimately pediatric vaccines can be developed.

Studies so far suggest that age of initial infection is an important factor in determining whether asthma develops. Most instances of respiratory syncytial virus – the leading cause of bronchiolitis, or lower respiratory tract infection, in young children – occur by the time a child is 1, but the sickest infants are those infected prior to 6 months of age.

About 2 to 5 percent of all infants develop severe bronchiolitis from RSV.

“If we can actually modulate the immune response in infants, we can prevent infants who get severe RSV bronchiolitis from developing asthma as adults,” Cormier said. “That’s a huge deal because there’s a huge economic cost and burden to the patient once they develop asthma from RSV.”

The health care costs associated with RSV infections are between $365 million and $600 million annually, and there are an estimated 64 million cases per year, according to Cormier.

Some infant vaccines are failing, and Cormier expects the research to lead to ways to strengthen and improve them.

The research is being conducted over a four-year period, with roughly two years remaining and a probable one-year, no-cost extension.

An additional $238,580 in grant funding will be used to study how exposure to environmentally persistent free radicals (EPFRs) impact adult respiratory health and the development of asthma.

EPFRs are a new class of pollutants identified in contaminated soils at Superfund sites, formed from combustion and thermal treatment of hazardous substances.

Since joining UTHSC, Cormier, along with the university’s Dr. John Devincenzo and St. Jude Children Research Hospital’s Dr. Julia Hurwitz and Dr. Paul Thomas, have applied for an $18 million U19 grant to look at respiratory viruses in infants and how they can lead to asthma. The group hopes to hear back about the grant by January.

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