Dr. Elizabeth Cowley
Inflammation, Infection & Immunity
Oxygen is essential to life, but some forms of oxygen can have deadly effects. These are the unstable oxygen compounds scientists call reactive oxygen species. Many of these are free radicals, while others release free radicals that damage tissues through oxidation a destructive sort of biological rusting. One Dalhousie researcher is examining the role of such oxidative damage in inflammatory lung diseases, which include asthma, bronchitis, and cystic fibrosis.
“It seems paradoxical that the very air we breathe contains oxygen compounds that can damage our lungs, but it’s true, says Dr. Elizabeth Cowley, an assistant professor in Dalhousie’s Department of Physiology & Biophysics. She adds that cigarette smoke and other air pollution dramatically increase the load of unstable oxygen compounds and free radicals in the air we breathe.
Dr. Cowley is interested in unstable oxygen compounds because they are found in elevated levels in the lungs of people with all forms of inflammatory lung disease. “There’s a vicious circle at work, because people with these diseases lack the natural defences to ward off free radical damage,” she says. “At the same time, the inflammatory nature of their disease results in the production of even more free radicals, which wreak even more damage.” Dr. Cowley is working with human lung cells in petri dishes to uncover the mechanisms of oxidative damage in cystic fibrosis. She has a particular interest in hydrogen peroxide, a product of inflammation that is the most destructive freeradical producer of all. “If we can find out why the lungs lose their ability to defend themselves, it could lead to antioxidant therapies to extend the lives of people with cystic fibrosis.”