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UR Moves to Next Phase of WTC Dust Investigation

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center are beginning an investigation into the effects of World Trade Center dust on the body’s immune system. The research is part of an ongoing, collaborative effort that began in the months after Sept. 11, 2001, to assess the short- and long-term health implications of the terrorism.

So far, two years of scientific analysis at the UR shows that dust collected from Manhattan immediately after the collapse of the twin towers is probably no more harmful to the lungs than common dust. Research completed in 2003 measured the immediate and latent affects of the WTC dust on both young and old rats, and showed minimal lung inflammation, said Alison Elder, Ph.D., research assistant professor, Environmental Medicine. Elder will present those results to the Society of Toxicology in March.

 However, many questions remain unanswered, such as the long-term effects of exposure on emergency responders who inhaled large amounts of debris. UR scientists hypothesize, for example, that exposure to WTC dust may harm the body’s ability to fight influenza or other respiratory viruses more than common dust particles.

 Researchers in Environmental Medicine will study the immune response to influenza in mice in collaboration with David Topham, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UR Center for Vaccine Biology & Immunology. Questions will focus on whether the WTC dust harms the body’s natural immunologic memory, reducing a person’s ability to resist flu when infections recur.

 “We still don’t know all of the health implications from the terrorist attack and it may take 20 years to completely play out,” says Jacob Finkelstein, Ph.D., professor, Pediatrics, Environmental Medicine and Radiation Oncology, and one of the UR’s lead investigators on the project.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is funding the research. In addition to the UR, some universities received supplemental funding in October 2003 to continue their studies. They are: Columbia University, Johns-Hopkins University, New York University, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Rutgers University, and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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