October 13, 2017

The California wildfires of 2017 are shining a spotlight on research originally conducted back in 2008 at the California National Primate Research Center (CNPRC) which found that exposure to high levels of wildfire smoke negatively affects development of both the immune system and lung function.

Because the fires came so close to the UC-Davis campus where the CNPRC is located, researchers could test the effect of wildfire smoke on the center’s 5,000 nonhuman primates. Since they live outside, they’re exposed to higher levels of smoke than humans. Additionally, the timing of the fire in early summer coincided with the end of the birthing season for rhesus macaques, allowing the researchers to study the effects of the smoke on newborns.

Lisa Miller, leader of the CNPRC Respiratory Diseases Unit, and her team tested lung function and took blood samples from monkeys that were two to three weeks old during the 10 days of peak smoke pollution.

The fine particles found in wildfire smoke can lodge deep in the lungs and are known to cause respiratory illness. This research, however, revealed that exposure in infancy can also impair the development of the immune system. A sample group of the nonhuman primates that had suffered smoke damage were exposed to an infectious disease. Compared to a control group, the immune systems of the doubly-exposed nonhuman primates weren’t as effective at combating the virus.

“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.”

With renewed interest in this research, Miller and others are pressing forward with their work.


Reviewed August 2019

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