Breathing easy: How CIHR is tackling respiratory health threats
A message for Lung Health Month
The health and wellness of all people living in Canada are affected by the air we breathe. While we have helped to inform Canadians of the negative effects of cigarette smoking, aerosols inhaled from E-cigarettes and cannabis inhalation on lung health, there are external influences that are increasingly common. For example, our lungs have been subjected more frequently to viral infections (such as COVID-19, influenza, and RSV) and wildfires. Research is key to improving lung health for all.
Earlier this year, CIHR and partners launched the Team Grants in Lung Health funding opportunity to support research into ongoing, new, and emerging threats to lung health. This new initiative aims to improve our understanding of biological, social, environmental, and behavioural influences on lung health in order to close the existing evidence gaps for life-altering and fatal respiratory conditions.
The Institute of Cancer Research and the Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health are co-leading the initiative in collaboration with the CIHR Centre for Research on Pandemic Preparedness and Health Emergencies, the Institute of Gender and Health, the Institute of Genetics, and the Institute of Infection and Immunity. We are also proud to collaborate on this initiative with ten other partner organisations in an effort to improve respiratory health for all in Canada.
The lungs are a vital organ of our bodies connected by the circulatory system to all other body organs and can affect nearly every aspect of our health. This Lung Health Month, reflect with CIHR Scientific Directors on why improving respiratory health is a priority for their Institute.
In addition to Lung Health Month, November also marks Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Lung cancer remains the leading cause of death from cancer in Canada. Where do you think the most promising advances in lung cancer research may lead in the coming years?
“While it is well known that cigarette smoking has been linked to lung and multiple other cancers, the incidence of lung cancers in people who have not smoked is increasing. We need research that investigates the role other lung toxins play in the etiology of lung cancer, and to better understand the interaction between the host genome with their environment, in order to develop more personalized prevention efforts and improve treatment outcomes for those diagnosed with lung cancer.”
Cigarette smoking and air pollution are risk factors that contribute to preventable deaths, hospitalizations, and emergency department visits. E-cigarettes and aerosol inhalation have emerged as an alternative to smoking and the evidence on its impacts on health is rapidly accumulating. In recent years, Canada and the US have experienced dramatic increases in youth vaping and a crisis in E-cigarette and Vaping Products Acute Lung Injury (EVALI). What are your thoughts on where to focus efforts to improve the lung health of people living in Canada?
“Its important for everyone to remember that the only safe compound to inhale into your lungs is air, and even that can be contaminated with particulate matter and chemicals from wildfires, air pollution, and other environmental emergencies. There is an urgent need to support research on the influence of these issues that intersect to impact our health and wellbeing in order to improve the lung health for all Canadians.”
There are a number of inequitable impacts on lung health that are connected to sex, gender, and other intersecting factors including socioeconomic status, ancestral heritage, and lifestage. Women are underrepresented in health research and misdiagnosed for cardio-respiratory conditions, suggesting that sex and gender considerations are in urgent need of attention. Where do you see the greatest potential impact of sex and gender research as it relates to women’s lung health?
“Many of the factors that affect women’s lung health either disproportionately or differently are understudied, which negatively affects prevention, diagnosis, and treatment success. As one example, women are more likely to develop COPD earlier in life and to experience worse symptoms than men, yet they face higher rates of misdiagnosis. By developing a research evidence base that accounts for sex and gender from an intersectional perspective, we can deliver the high-quality personalized lung health care that women really need.”
The development of lung tissue and function, especially early and later in life, can be greatly affected by genetics. Certain genes and inherited mutations may dramatically increase an individual’s risk of developing respiratory diseases, especially in combination with ongoing exposure to environmental contaminants. What are your thoughts on how genetics play a key role in the health of our lungs?
“Genetic research helps to better understand the complex relationship between genetics and environmental exposures, such as pollution, smoking, vaping, and more. By examining how genetic factors interact with environmental contaminants, researchers can gain insights into how genetic variations may increase an individual's susceptibility to these contaminants.”
Acute and chronic inflammation can be caused by respiratory infections, environmental contaminants, or other factors. For example, the absorption of particulate matter and aerosol pollutants can damage lung tissue directly and cause local and systemic inflammation. How would gaining a better understanding of the molecular processes of chronic inflammation in the lungs help with better respiratory health?
“Chronic inflammation in the lung is a common pathway that underlies almost all respiratory and airway diseases. While we know that various immune cells, epithelial cells, and factors such as cytokines — which tell cells what to do and where to go—are involved in inflammation, further research that increases our understanding of molecular mechanisms of these common pathways can help in identifying new targets for biomarkers and therapeutics. This will help improve lung health across multiple diseases and conditions.”
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