New T32 to focus on climate change’s impact on lung health

A new NIH-funded grant will offer trainees the opportunity to conduct research in the intersection of climate change and lung health. David Stoltz, MD, PhD, professor and director of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Occupational Health, will serve as co-PI on this new T32 grant with Peter Thorne, PhD, professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health in the College of Public Health (CPH) and a University of Iowa Distinguished Chair. Thorne also directs the CPH Nexus Collaboratory on Climate Change and Health.

Typically, a T32 training grant funds a certain number of trainees—PhD students, postdoctoral research fellows, or subspecialty physician scientists—for two to three years at an institution. The grant itself is usually renewable every five years. Funded trainees conduct research in a field specific to the NIH funding agency. The Department of Internal Medicine is home to many T32s, including long-running ones in the Divisions of Infectious Diseases, Cardiovascular Medicine, and Endocrinology and Metabolism. The Medical Scientist Training Program in the Carver College of Medicine has also been supported by a federal T32 for decades, placing that program among the oldest in the country.

By the end of its fifth year in 2028, the new $2.13M T32 from the NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute will have supported as many as 46 research trainees working on a variety of projects. “We’re really excited about the potential for new discovery and for training the next generation of researchers,” Stoltz said. “It’s not hard to see all the ways that our planet’s changing climate is having an impact on people’s health.” Beyond the direct connections between increasing air pollution from fossil fuel emissions and rates of asthma around the world, Stoltz also points to longer forest fire seasons in the West and drier climates from drought as potential culprits. “There are a lot of unanswered questions that physicians, all of us, should be trying to find answers to.”

The collaboration with CPH on this new training grant was an easy one to build. When Pulmonary’s Alejandro Comellas, MD, and Emma Stapleton, PhD, and others traveled to India to investigate the effect of biomass indoor fires on the lungs of women, they were assisted by Thorne in the measurement of airborne particulate matter gathered from electrostatic dust collectors. The CPH’s Environmental Health Sciences Research Center was also a major supporter of that project.

Like Stoltz, Thorne says he sees a lot of opportunity and need for greater understanding about the adverse health impacts caused by climate change. About eight years ago, seeing a need in the CPH curriculum, he launched a class examining those impacts as well as strategies for mitigation of unsustainable practices and adaptation to a changing climate.

In an episode last fall of the CPH podcast From the Front Row, Thorne pointed out the lengthening allergy season and the increase in the pollen burden as aother area where climate change has affected people’s lung health. “We have more extreme levels of allergy,” he said, “and we’re starting to see new allergy species move northward in many parts of the world.” He also noted the importance of focusing on how climate change impacts can have disproportionate effects on more vulnerable or marginalized populations.

The funding period for the grant is now underway and as it ramps up, Stoltz says, they will be working with trainees currently at Iowa to identify potential projects. “But over the next couple years, we think this will also be an important recruitment tool,” Stoltz said. “Iowa already has a strong reputation for studying lung health and the environment and for training others in those areas. This grant will help us build on that promise.”

Stoltz also sees promise in what the trainees themselves will discover and the urgency that will propel them. “Young people have a passion toward mitigating climate change, especially the health impact. We need to train the next generation to tackle the lung health consequences of a problem that will affect them even more than us.”

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