Estelle Cormet-Boyaka, PhD

Biomedical Research Grant: Finding How Cadmium Accumulation in the Lungs Leads to Lung Disease

Cadmium, a toxic heavy metal, is an air pollutant found in coal, diesel exhaust and cigarette smoke. Inhaling cadmium has been linked to lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Cadmium's half-life, or the amount of time it takes to decrease by half, is 20 to 30 years, meaning that it accumulates in the body.

Estelle Cormet-Boyaka, PhD, is using an American Lung Association Biomedical Research Grant to study how cadmium affects the lung. She is focusing on a protein in the lung called CFTR, which is involved in the development of cystic fibrosis (CF). Cystic fibrosis is caused by mutations in the CF gene, which makes the CFTR protein. In healthy people, CFTR secretes chloride ions onto the inner surface of the lungs, which helps the lungs to prevent microbial infection. In cystic fibrosis, many mutated CF genes degrade and disappear before they can function. The lack of sufficient chloride secretion can lead to an accumulation of mucus and bacteria in the lungs. This in turn leads to chronic inflammation in the lungs. Dr. Cormet-Boyaka will be studying the mechanism by which cadmium affects the production and function of CFTR, and causes inflammation. People with CF have two defective CF genes. She says it is possible that people with one defective CF gene, who produce less CFTR, and are exposed to high levels of cadmium, end up with excess mucus and bacteria in the lungs. This could lead to too much inflammation and the subsequent development of lung diseases such as chronic bronchitis, a type of COPD. "Once we understand the role of cadmium on CFTR and its ability to induce inflammation, we want to investigate CFTR's role in other lung diseases linked to cadmium, such as COPD," she says. "If we find that CFTRs are involved, then ultimately drugs being developed for cystic fibrosis that increase CFTR production also might be tested for other lung diseases."

Dr. Cormet-Boyaka is grateful to the American Lung Association for her grant, which she hopes will help her generate enough data to apply for a grant from the National Institutes of Health. "Then we will be able to really investigate the question of whether CFTR is involved in other airway diseases and the contribution of cadmium to that process," she says.