Environment & Respiratory Passages

Respiratory diseases, including asthma and airway allergies, are a largely overlooked public-health
problem afflicting about 25 per cent of the Danish population. Quite apart from reducing patients’ quality of life, such conditions are expensive to treat, both for society and for the individual.

By learning more about the interaction between humans and the environment, indoors and out, and by identifying factors that may contribute to the development of respiratory ailments, we can also find better ways to prevent them. That is why researchers in this field are asking questions like:: 

  • How are respiratory illnesses contingent upon the gene–environment interaction?
  • How do changes in our indoor and outdoor environment affect the development of allergies and respiratory ailments?
  • Once new knowledge about the gene–environment interaction’s significance for the development of respiratory diseases has been gained, how can it be used to prevent these ailments from occurring?


Working closely with a wide range of partners


Research into the impact of environmental factors on allergy and respiratory diseases is carried out in close collaboration with scientists from other university departments in Aarhus and elsewhere. Our partners include researchers from other universities and medical clinicians from departments for pulmonary and occupational medicine, who bring up clinical issues that help to define and develop new research areas.

The research has a strong end-user focus, with emphasis on transforming its findings into real benefits for the groups exposed to the adverse environmental conditions. That is why research projects often have an advisory group composed of key stakeholders, including ministries and labour-market organizations.

This makes it possible to put scientific results to practical use. In 2007, for example, the respiratory research at Health informed a decision to reduce the limits on wood dust in the workplace, thereby reducing the risk of lung diseases among employees in the woodworking and furniture industry.

Projects

  • Participation in CEEH – the interdisciplinary Centre for Energy, Environment and Health. CEEH utilizes knowledge about air pollution and its effects on human health, coupling scientific findings with energy economy, atmospheric chemistry, meteorology, demography and health economics to develop the energy utilities of the future – and to asses their impact on public health.
  • Numerous studies of acute toxicity. Conducted in the unit’s advanced climate chamber, these studies enable cientists to directly examine inflammation in the respiratory tract after a subject’s controlled exposure to environmental pollutants. The substances studied range from indoor contaminants to pollen and air pollution.
  • Leadership of CISBO – the interdisciplinary Centre for Indoor Air and Health in Dwellings, under the auspices of Realdania Research (www.CISBO.dk). This centre investigates the connection between indoor pollutants and health using many different approaches, from intervention to climate-Lung function in field studies chamber exposure.
  • The SUS project, studying indoor heath in farm buildings, has catalogued data on 2,400 young farmers over a period of 15 years. SUS has yielded a unique insight into the impact of gene–environment interaction on the development of allergy and respiratory diseases in the agricultural sector. Findings have demonstrated a lower prevalence of allergy and asthma among people born in rural settings, and identified genes that prove to be linked to a higher risk of developing asthma.
  • A study of potential links between wood dust and the development of respiratory diseases among 2,000 workers in the furniture industry. Detailed information on exposure and disease in this cohort, as well as detailed knowledge of the factors influencing exposure levels, has influenced the international research community and woodworking industries worldwide.

Milestones

Demonstration of gene–environmental interaction between agricultural exposure and genetic variants of alfa1 antitrypsin
(Sigsgaard T, et al. Eur Respir J. 2000;16:50–5)

Men and women are found to react differently following exposure to organic dust
(Jacobsen G, et al. Eur Respir J. 2009 Jun;33(6):1268–76)

Allergies are shown to occur less often among young farmers born in a rural setting
(Portengen L, et al. J Clin Exp Allergy. 2002 Feb;32(2):247–53)

Identification of risk factors for asthma among young farmers
(Omland O, et al. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2011 Jul 11)

A large-scale, consortium-based, genomewide association study of asthma
(Moffatt MF, et al. N Engl J Med. 2010 Sep 23;363(13):1211–21)

Methods

Research into allergies and the human respiratory tract involves many different fields and activities, among them epidemiological studies, basic science, and clinical exposure studies using one of the most advanced climate chambers in the world.

The scientific methods and fields employed include:

  • Toxicology
  • Human exposure chambers equipped with state of the art exposure facilities for particles and aerosols. Further facilities for climate simulations.
  • Cellular studies in vitro ex vivo.
  • Epidemiology with emphasis on respiratory diseases and allergy.
  • Environmental epidemiology.
  • Occupational epidemiology.
  • Occupational Exposure assessment focused on particles microorganisms and allergens.
  • Indoor and outdoor exposure assessmen.