Aims to augment immune system’s response to toxic exposure

Kurt Lu, assistant professor of dermatology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, has received a five-year, $3.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to expand countermeasures against chemical threats, including mustard gas and mustard-related compounds. The molecular action of mustard on DNA leads to strand breaks and eventual cell death. The goal of the grant is to augment the body’s immune system after exposure, reducing skin swelling and pain as well as enhancing tissue repair.

Following its use during World War I, an international ban on mustard gas took effect in 1925, but it is still being used today. For example, last year there was purported use of rockets containing mustard gas in regions of the Middle East.

“Mustards used as chemical weapons can have a devastating impact on human health,” Lu said. “Exposure and inhalation can cause destruction of skin, eyes, and lungs, resulting in pain, loss of blood cells and death. Loss of red blood cells can lead to anemia, and loss of white blood cellswhich defend the human immune systemcan result in severe infections, possibly even death. To date, there is no antidote. Therefore, new discoveries which can halt the effects of these chemicals can be invaluable to the public and our military and public safety personnel.”

Using surrogate chemicals and safe experimental models in the laboratory, the new study will test whether vitamin D, in combination with readily available drugs or with novel immune-modifying microparticles derived from clinical polymers, can serve as effective countermeasures against the acute painful inflammation and delayed injury caused by mustard gas.

For the past five years, Lu has worked to develop high-dose vitamin D-based treatments for skin injury and repair. Earlier this summer he published a study showing that large doses can be an effective remedy against severe sunburn.

Funding for the new grant is provided under the National Institutes of Health’s Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats (CounterACT) program, which supports basic and translational research to identify medical countermeasures against chemical threat agents, and support their movement through the drug development and regulatory processes.

This grant builds on a prior CounterACT award to Lu, now in its last year, also to address skin repair from toxic chemical exposures.