In 2014, CDC/NIOSH awarded $4 million in federal funding to our research program to conduct five new research projects that will evaluate the extent of mental and physical illness in hundreds of responders. Studies conducted by Stony Brook WTC Wellness over the past several years have revealed that as many as 60 percent of 9/11 World Trade Center responders continue to experience clinically significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and lower respiratory illness—the two conditions coexist so often in WTC responders that they can be thought of as one signature illness, say our researchers. This connection raises numerous important questions about the mechanisms underlying this relationship, and what they mean for disease progression going forward—these new endeavors will help us treat and monitor our responders more effectively in the long-term.
This ongoing work is the first to explore the association between gene expression and both PTSD and respiratory illness in 9/11 responders using cutting-edge epigenetics techniques. With the collection of blood samples, the researchers determined methylation patterns—a chemical process that contributes to changes in how genes are expressed as a result of environmental and other biological influences. The identification of these patterns is crucial to uncovering the biological mechanisms that underlie the genetic pathway linking PTSD and respiratory illness. In fact, we now know as a result of such work that trauma can silence or activate certain genes. This work’s longitudinal design is allowing us to return to participants whose DNA samples were taken two years prior and assess whether biological mechanisms including methylation, gene expression, and levels of inflammatory cytokines contribute to onset and persistence of lower respiratory symptoms. Our work in this arena has led to significant conclusions, with the potential to illuminate how we can better treat patients suffering from comorbid illness, as well as pave the way for a new generation of diagnostic tests.