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University of Arizona

Superfund Research Program

Role of NRF2 in the Pulmonary Response to Inhaled Mine Tailing Dust

Project Leader: Donna D. Zhang
Co-Investigators: Scott Boitano, Robert Clark Lantz
Grant Number: P42ES004940
Funding Period: 2017-2020
View this project in the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT)

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Project Summary (2017-2020)

Chronic exposure to arsenic-containing dusts from the Iron King Mine Superfund Site, and other metal mining sites in arid and semi-arid climates is of public health importance worldwide. Both cancer and non-malignant lung diseases are associated with chronic arsenic exposure. While arsenic is classified as a carcinogen following either ingestion or inhalation, little data exists concerning the modes of action for development of noncancerous lung diseases from exposure to arsenic containing dusts through inhalation.

Noncancerous lung diseases that have been associated with arsenic ingestion include both obstructive (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, bronchiectasis) and restrictive (fibrosis) lung disease. Preliminary data from the University of Arizona Superfund Research Program project Toxicological Impact of Mine Tailings Dust on Lung Epithelial Barrier Function and others suggest that inhalation of arsenic associated with particulates may be an important exposure route for lung toxicity. Collectively, data indicate that arsenic exposure compromises the barrier integrity of the airway epithelium by inducing an epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT).

This project is examining a potential intervention to block arsenic toxicity. Nrf2 is a transcription factor that is activated by oxidative stress. Activation of the canonical Nrf2 pathway leads to expression of genes that can protect against increased oxidative stress. The studies by this team (and others) indicate a protective role for Nrf2 against arsenic exposure. However, the molecular mechanisms of how Nrf2 protects airway epithelial cells, specifically, how activation of Nrf2 pathways can modulate EMT and airway epithelial barrier function, is not known.

The hypothesis of this project is that arsenic-containing dusts cause airway epithelial dysfunction through autophagy blockage/prolonged Nrf2 activation (non-canonical); however, intermittent induction of Nrf2 (canonical) by dietary supplementation during exposure can maintain airway epithelial barrier integrity, and thus, reduce arsenic-induced lung disease. These differential outcomes are indicative of a "dark side" of Nrf2 that may contribute to arsenic toxicity.

The researchers aim to:


  1. Determine the protective role of Nrf2 in maintaining airway epithelial barrier integrity in response to dust particles with/without arsenic in vitro.
  2. Examine the efficacy of prophylactic canonical Nrf2 activation by dietary supplementation in maintaining airway epithelial barrier integrity and ameliorating lung damage in mice exposed to inhaled dust particles with/without arsenic.



The researchers hypothesize that dietary Nrf2 activation may counteract arsenic-mediated inhalation toxicity to lung epithelium, providing an intervention for populations at high risk of arsenic exposure. A detailed understanding of the mechanism of Nrf2 activation by arsenic dusts and its effects on airway epithelial cells will prove extremely valuable in the generation of preventive and therapeutic strategies for the populations at risk of exposure to arsenic, and potentially, other metal(oids).

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