Was the immune system of the Puerto Rican population affected by post Hurricane Maria air pollution?

Backed by Rafael F.Font
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About This Project

After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, indoor air pollution (IAP) became a public health concern. We hypothesize that chronic exposure to IAP affected the immune system of the Puerto Rican population, such as becoming more reactive to pro-inflammatory components present in IAP. To test this, we will compare the human blood leukocytes reactivity of Puerto Ricans exposed to the post-Hurricane Maria IAP and Puerto Ricans not exposed to IAP.

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What is the context of this research?

Following Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico experienced a large amount of destruction and water damage to homes and other indoor settings. Slow recovery of damaged homes and other indoor settings can create ideal environments for indoor exposure to microbial (e.g. bacteria and fungi, and allergens) and other contaminants with pro-inflammatory potential that can affect the respiratory health of those still living on the island.

In addition, before and after Hurricane Maria large portions of Puerto Rico’s inhabitants moved to other areas of the USA to escape the damage. This transient population in and out of the island have had different exposure to microbial contaminants on Puerto Rico, thus potentially having different responses to pollutants.

What is the significance of this project?

Interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta), released by cells of the human immune system in response to pro-inflammatory stimuli, has numerous effects on the human body ranging contributing to chronic respiratory diseases, autoimmune , hematologic, and neurologic conditions, among others. Studying the levels of IL-1beta in those that have been exposed to harsh living conditions, like post Hurricane Maria, can provide insight into the role the environment plays on one’s health after a hurricane. It can lead to further research into possible predispositions, exploring preventive measures, and immune thresholds that have the ability to cause disease by exploring length of exposure to the environment in post-hurricane settings.

What are the goals of the project?

We hypothesize that immune system of the Puerto Rican population exposed to post-Hurricane Maria indoor air pollution (IAP) is more reactive than those not-exposed (Puerto Ricans not living in the affected areas). To test this hypothesis, We will be challenging human blood leukocytes of Puerto Ricans to 50 indoor air samples to determine if the immune system of Puerto Ricans exposed (10 subjects) to post-Hurricane Maria IAP is more reactive than those not exposed (10 subjects). We will be measuring, via ELISA assay, the levels of the pro-inflammatory biomarker interleunkin-1beta induced in human blood immune cells from volunteer Puerto Rican subjects after challenge to the indoor air samples. The indoor samples were collected for an ongoing study related to Hurricane Maria.


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The protein interleukin (IL)-1beta is an important pro-inflammatory biomarker that is released by human blood immune cells in response to toxic stimuli, such as those present in indoor air pollution. When indoor air samples are tested for the potency to induce the release of IL-1beta from human blood immune cells, we can understand the respiratory risk that a particular environment poses to human health.

Volunteer subjects will receive a $15 compensation (each) to show our appreciation for their participation. We are anticipating 20 volunteers (10 exposed and 10 not-exposed to post-Hurricane Maria indoor air pollution) in the project.

Once in the lab, participants' blood will be challenged with indoor air samples collected from water-damaged and non-damaged (control) homes. Levels of IL-1beta will then be quantified with the ELISA technique.

Our research group staffs researchers and phlebotomists that are able to collect blood, run experiments, interpret, and publish findings.

Endorsed by

Because of the worrisome co-occurrence of both high levels of individuals with respiratory conditions in Puerto Rico, and the dire conditions set by Hurricane Maria in the island, this study presents paramount relevance. I am fully confident of Dr. Rivera-Mariani's expertise and his commitment to the wellbeing of Puerto Rico, and therefore fully support this project.
This project is really exciting at the time it is very well needed! After such disaster, understanding how Puerto Ricans are affected by their impacted environment is crucial.

Flag iconProject Timeline

After IRB approval, we will begin recruitment of volunteers. We will recruit 20 volunteers: 10 who lived in PR before and 10 who lived in PR during the hurricane, and now (both groups) are living in the US (South Florida region). We will draw blood and challenge the human blood immune cells and measure the IL-1beta biomarker with ELISA. Lastly, we will analyze and publish the findings. The indoor air samples are already available as part of another study.

Feb 07, 2019

Project Launched

Apr 01, 2019

IRB Review 

May 01, 2019

Recruit Participants (after IRB approval)

Jun 01, 2019

Challenge human blood immune cells and quantify biomarkers (IL-beta) with ELISA 

Jul 01, 2019

Data Analysis 

Meet the Team

Felix E. Rivera-Mariani
Felix E. Rivera-Mariani
Principal Investigator
Hayat Srour
Hayat Srour
Research Assistant
Ruslan Fomenko
Ruslan Fomenko
Research Assistant
Shandra Bellinger
Shandra Bellinger
Research Assistant
Joshua Baguley
Joshua Baguley
Research Assistant
Ariel Stateman
Ariel Stateman
Research Assistant
Summer Pellechio
Summer Pellechio
Research Assistant

Team Bio

We are the Respiratory and Immunology Project Laboratory Research Team (RIPLRT) within the College of Biomedical Sciences at Larkin University.

In the RIPLRT, in addition to addressing the respiratory health of the population through immunological, exposure science, and computational approaches, we value inclusiveness, diversity, integrity, productivity, innovation, excellence, collaboration, and leadership.

Felix E. Rivera-Mariani

I am a Assistant Professor in the College of Biomedical Sciences at Larkin University, and have extensive research experience as immunologist, microbiologist, aerobiologist, and computational biologist. I am also the principal investigator of the Respiratory and Immunology Project Laboratory Research Team at Larkin University (RIPLRT). At Larkin University, in addition to carrying out scientific research, I teach biochemistry, immunology, and molecular genetics. Among my academic credentials include a B.S. in Biology with a minor in Chemistry (Southeastern Louisiana University under an athletic scholarship), Ph.D. in Microbiology and Medical Zoology (School of Medicine of the University of Puerto Rico - Medical Sciences Campus), post-doctoral fellowship in Environmental Health Sciences (the Bloomberg School of Public Health of the Johns Hopkins University), and Science Teaching Fellowship (American Society for Microbiology).

I am strong supporter of reproducible data analysis and thus gained specializations in Data Science, Genomic Data Sciences, Executive Data Science, Software Development (Johns Hopkins University), Systems Biology (Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai), and Bioinformatics (University of California at San Diego). Through these specializations, I developed extensive experience as a programmer in the R, Python, and Matlab computer languages.

Hayat Srour

I am a graduate from the M.S. in Biomedical Sciences program at Larkin University. Before joining Larkin, I earned a B.A. in Anthropology from Wayne State University (Detroit, Michigan). My interest in scientific research stems from my passion for medicine and philanthropy. Among my diverse goals, I aspire to become a physician actively working toward global equality.

My participation and leadership in the RIPLRT date back to its beginning (back then the RIPLRG). When the group was created, I was assigned the task of being the spokesperson of the group. Now, I am a Research Assistant and Lab Manager of the RIPLRT.

Ruslan Fomenko

I am a recent graduate of the M.S. in Biomedical Sciences from Larkin University, and grew up in Kazakhstan and moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia. I also have a B.S. in Cellular and Molecular Biology, with a Psychology minor, from Christopher Newport University. As an undergraduate, I participated in research focused on the antioxidant and antimicrobial properties of drought and salt-stressed Rosmarinus officinalis plants. With the RIPLRT, I am a Research Assistant and one of the certified phlebotomist.

Shandra Bellinger

I am originally from Maryland, where I completed a B.S in Biology from Frostburg State University. I relocated to Miami and graduated from Larkin University with a M.S. in Biomedical Sciences. Being a member of the RIPLRT is allowing me the opportunity to grow as an Research Assistant and expand my knowledge.

Joshua Baguley

I grew up in Indonesia and then moved to Waco, Texas where I attended Baylor University to complete a B.S. in Biochemistry. I spent the majority of my time at Baylor working as an undergraduate researcher, specializing in DNA manipulation and protein purification, and focused on the functions and effects of replication factors MCM8, MCM9, Dpo1, and Dpo4 on the DNA replisome. I am also a recent graduate of the M.S. in Biomedical Sciences program at Larkin University.

Ariel Stateman

I recently graduated from the M.S. in Biomedical Sciences program at Larkin University. Before joining Larkin, l earned a B.S. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There, I participated in scientific research studying the sensing in lean and obese individuals through rats. I also have extensive experience in clinical observations from my internships at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, IL. Among my prospective professional plans, I look forward to earning a MD degree.

Summer Pellechio

I recently graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY) with a B.S. in Biomedical Sciences. I originally matriculated as an Industrial Design student, seeking a people-oriented career that would integrate empathy and creative thinking. These characteristics led me to health sciences and an aspiration to become a Physician Assistant. My undergraduate lab work focused on the frequencies of anergic gene polymorphisms in sickle cell disease populations. Before joining the RIPLRT as a Research Assistant and certified phlebotomist, I also worked as an EMT in the city of Rochester and volunteered with RIT’s collegiate EMS agency.

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