Yogesh Saini

Yogesh Saini sits in his office in the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine.

LSU Veterinary assistant professor Yogesh Saini received the Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) award, which will allow him to continue researching ozone-induced lung diseases. Saini is one of only five ONES award recipients this year.

Saini was awarded a $2.7 million grant that will fund his research for the next five years. As of now, he has received about $4 million in funding through various grants for research of the mechanisms of different lung diseases.

The ONES award was created by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in 2006 to support environmental health research investigators who are in the early stages of their careers. Saini said the award is widely regarded as among the biggest awards within the biological sciences.

“This is an honor because it’s very competitive,” Saini said. “When I used to talk to people in environmental research, they used to say this award was very competitive. ‘The best and the brightest’ is what they used to call you if you get it.”

Saini has been generating data in preparation for applying for the ONES award since he began working at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine in 2014. He and his team submitted their proposal in February 2018 and received their letter of award in February 2019.

Saini’s research focuses on how inhaled ozone affects lung functioning. Ozone is a gas that aggressively attacks the lungs when inhaled and can induce asthmatic symptoms. Anyone who spends time outdoors is at risk of breathing in ozone, but children, the elderly and those with preexisting lung diseases are particularly at risk, Saini said.

Macrophages, white blood cells that digest foreign substances, are now considered the first responders.

“Historically, researchers used to think these cells were just standing there like cops seeing if we inhaled something dirty,” Saini said. “No one actually paid attention to these cells, but my research is saying that these are the major players.”

Macrophages are flexible in terms of movement around the lungs and their population size, giving them an important role of defending the host from disease. The Environmental Protection Agency is attempting to limit the amount of ozone in the air, but Saini said it’s critical to understand the mechanisms of macrophages to combat the effects of high levels of ozone.

In order to understand the pathogenesis of ozone-induced lung diseases, Saini experiments with several kinds of mice that differ in their expression of certain genes. The mice are exposed to ozone at night in special chambers. Humans are exposed to ozone at times when they are most active during the day, so Saini’s experiments model that by exposing the mice to ozone when they’re most active.

After the mice are exposed to ozone, Saini observes the effects of the ozone on the different types of mice.

Saini said his current research is key to accomplishing his long-term goal of creating a drug that shuts down the pathways of ozone-induced lung diseases.

“Drug development is a long process,” Saini said. “We’ll be fortunate if we get it done in the next 10 to 20 years. The first step is to understand the pathways of disease in the animals. This study is the foundation of what we really need down the road.”

Saini plans to use the $2.7 million grant to hire more graduate and postdoctoral students and buy equipment to continue his experiments. He attributes his success in obtaining the grant to his research team and the continued support of administration at the Vet School.

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