Skip to main content
Ric Boucher, MD
Ilona Jaspers, PhD

(Republished from the UNC Health Care and UNC School of Medicine Newsroom)

The US Department of Defense tabbed UNC Marsico Lung Institute researchers led by Richard Boucher, MD, and Ilona Jaspers, PhD, to study the adverse effects of inhaling toxic fumes from burn pits in the field. Soldiers in the field can be exposed to toxic fumes from waste disposal burn pits, causing potentially severe and debilitating bronchitic and asthmatic pulmonary responses. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) selected UNC School of Medicine researchers to study this military health problem because of UNC’s unique combination of skills and expertise in lung biology, toxicology/inhalation exposure, and therapies for bronchitic/asthmatic diseases.

The grant is for $9.96 million dollars over five years.

Led by Richard Boucher, MD (PI), and Ilona Jaspers, PhD (co-PI), investigators at the Marsico Lung Institute, the UNC Cystic Fibrosis Center, the UNC Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology, and the UNC Center for Lung Biology have joined forces to attack this problem from various angles.

“We are pleased to have been selected by the DoD to investigate key issues relevant to the respiratory health of deployed personnel,” said Boucher, Director of the UNC Marsico Lung Institute and the James C. Moeser Eminent Distinguished Professor of Medicine. “We hope this project will rapidly generate the required knowledge and strategies to minimize the risk of burn-pit bronchitis and, if needed, reverse the chronic muco-obstructive components of bronchitis with practical, simple therapeutic agents.”

Understanding the cause of burn pit-induced bronchitis is difficult because of the complexity of the materials incinerated in burn pits and the variability of burn pit exposure in active duty personnel. Without knowledge of the nature of the toxic materials generated in burn pits and the level of exposure, it is difficult to design strategies to mitigate disease and, if needed, treat disease. Thus, the UNC studies include testing of incinerated materials generated from burn pits in high fidelity in vitro human airway culture models (Jaspers and Scott Randell, PhD) and mouse models (Claire Doerschuk, MD, and Alessandra Livraghi-Butrico, PhD) to identify toxic burn-pit materials and levels associated with pulmonary damage.

It has been established that phlegm production and pulmonary mucus accumulation (“bronchitis”) are hallmarks of inhalation-induced pulmonary damage in human subjects. Previous UNC research has suggested that the concentration of mucus proteins in the mucus layers lining the lung is critical for maintaining efficient clearance of toxic and infectious particles from the lung that can produce acute and/or chronic bronchitis.

Under the leadership of Michelle Hernandez, MD, and David Peden, MD, UNC investigators will explore simple but potentially very effective means of restoring clearance of abnormal mucus in wood smoke-exposed personnel to lessen the risk of acute and chronic bronchitis. (Wood smoke is a surrogate of burn pit smoke.) The goal is to make these therapies available in the field and at centralized medical facilities.