August 20, 2019

In 2018, wildfires tore across the state of California, leaving smoldering remains in their wake. These were some of the worst natural disasters on U.S. soil in recent years, and what’s worse, similar occurrences are becoming increasingly common.

If there’s any good to come from these phenomena, it’s that scientists are collecting data in the aftermath that could help reduce the effects of fires on humans and animals. This new research will add to the existing body of knowledge on the subject, including a study originally conducted in 2008 at the California National Primate Research Center (CNPRC). During the study, researchers found altered immunity and lung function in juvenile monkeys that were exposed as infants to wildfire smoke in 2008.

Lisa Miller, leader of the CNPRC Respiratory Diseases Unit, and her team recently tested lung function and blood samples from adult monkeys (now 10 years of age) that were originally exposed to the 2008 wildfire smoke. Their findings were consistent with the earlier study, suggesting that infant exposure to fine particles from fire leads to long term impairment of the respiratory and immune systems in adulthood. 

“The idea behind this is that if we detected any changes in the animals this information might translate as a biomarker that can be used for kids,” said Miller. “The ability of the animals to respond to a real pathogen was reduced. It was a surprise and somewhat disturbing.”

In 2018, smoke from the Butte County Camp Fire—which burned more than 700 square miles—reached the CNPRC, and about 2,000 animals and roughly 500 infant nonhuman primates were exposed for a period of more than 10 days. Because the fires came so close to the UC Davis campus where the CNPRC is located, researchers will once again be able to test the health effects of wildfire smoke on the center’s nonhuman primates. 

Examination of the results is still ongoing, but the additional data from this blaze will help Miller and team continue the search for causes, preventative measures and treatments for the damaging health effects of these massive wildfires.

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