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A Closer Look Briefs
Back Talk UM researcher earns highest U.S. honor for young scientists
Andrij Holian, a UM pharmaceutical sciences professor and the director of the school’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences, found his way back to Montana nearly a quarter of a century after earning his doctorate in Big Sky Country.
“I always thought I might come back to Montana,” says Holian, who earned a doctoral degree at MSU in 1975. “But I knew if I was going to come back, it would have to be for the right reasons under the right conditions.”
Those reasons and conditions surfaced in fall 1999 when UM’s School of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences lured Holian away from the University of Texas-Houston with an offer to become the director of a newly created center to study environmental impacts on human health.
Holian says the chance to come back to Montana, combined with the opportunity to lead UM into a new field of study, led to his decision to accept the offer to come to Missoula after spending 16 years at the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center.
“It was either stay at the University of Texas for a lot longer or start looking,” Holian says. “But it was very clear the University of Texas didn’t have environmental health as a focus.
looked at Yale, and I looked here. I felt this university would be
very supportive and wanted to see this new program become a major
focus for the University.”
Not only did UM gain a valued faculty member, it also inherited a ready-made program.
“He had tons and tons of experience and tons and tons of connections,” says Dave Forbes, dean of UM’s School of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences. “He basically brought his own lab with him. He literally brought in a ready-to-go research program.”
Some of Holian’s early work at UM has helped place the University at the forefront of timely studies into the effects of decades of exposure to asbestos on the residents of the northwestern Montana town of Libby, which has drawn national attention since the story surfaced in recent years.
Through 30 years of vermiculite mining at the now defunct W.R. Grace and Co. mine, Libby residents repeatedly were exposed to asbestos, which causes respiratory diseases such as asbestosis, a crippling, deadly disease that attacks the lungs and causes breathing difficulties. The airborne asbestos-laden dust poisoned soils in Libby and caused the deaths of hundreds of residents who were exposed to the particles.
Holian’s background in environmental toxicology made him the perfect candidate to spearhead UM’s efforts to help Libby residents better understand the devastating impact asbestosis has had on the community.
While the Libby crisis has sparked dozens of lawsuits against Grace and the state of Montana and has made the town a focal point for the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, it also has proven to be a vital testing ground for Holian’s ongoing research into respiratory diseases such as lung fibrosis.
“Lung fibrosis is a disease in which the overall lung tissue becomes thickened and less elastic,” Holian explains. “Asbestosis is a kind of lung fibrosis. There are no cures for lung fibrosis because we don’t really understand chronic lung diseases.”
Armed with some $3 million in federal grants, Holian is leading a team of UM scientists who employ a variety of research techniques to try to crack the mystery surrounding asbestosis and other respiratory ailments.
Holian’s team has brought Libby residents to UM for testing that includes taking blood and lung cell samples. A control group of non-Libby residents also is being tested so that samples can be compared.
“Bringing people down helps, but it doesn’t tell the whole story,” Holian says.
He believes that additional insight into the disease may be found in UM’s Animal Research Laboratory, where researchers are looking at how asbestosis affects mice.
“We are putting asbestos and silica particles into mice through their tracheas or lungs,” Holian says. “Then we monitor them over time and study how the disease affects them.”
To date, Holian says his research has made some headway into better understanding lung fibrosis. He says that foreign particles have an effect on a cell within the lungs called the alveolar macrophage, which triggers a reaction in the body’s immune system.
“We need to continue to study how those particles interact with that cell so we can learn how to block what they’re doing,” Holian says.
Holian’s work at the Center for Environmental Health Sciences also has focused on asthma, a common, yet serious, respiratory ailment that causes breathing difficulties.
Also through the use of lab mice, Holian is trying to determine how airborne particles exacerbate asthmatic conditions. One of the tests under way in his UM lab involves collecting air samples from Missoula and comparing them with samples taken in cities such as Boston and Houston.
“We put the mice into different groups and expose them to the particles gathered in different places,” he says. “That gives us an idea if there are differences in particles from around the country. We put the mice into the different chambers and look at how it impacts their breathing.”
For Forbes at the pharmacy school, the timely research being conducted in the new Center for Environmental Health Sciences is only one of the positive benefits that have surfaced since Holian arrived at UM.
Right off the bat, Holian was instrumental in securing more than $3 million in federal grants that helped pay the salaries of three more faculty members.
“He’s so well connected to federal funding,” Forbes says. “He knows of grant opportunities before they’re even announced.”
Forbes also is quick to point out that Holian has been anything but territorial when it comes to his research – gladly embracing and involving other UM faculty members in the studies.
me as dean, one of the most important benefits he has brought to campus
is that he is very inclusive,” Forbes says. “He’s
worked hard to bring others into his program.”
“For the most part on campus, we have programs, departments, schools and colleges. But a center is a conglomerate of people from all different units. A center should be like a true umbrella on campus. And that is what the Center for Environmental Health Sciences is turning out to be.” V
For more information on Holian’s asbestos research e-mail email@example.com.