Associate Professor Stephania Cormier Brings More Than $2.5 Million in Grants for Pediatric and Adult Respiratory Research to UTHSC

Dr. Cormier photo2

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the leading cause of bronchiolitis or lower respiratory tract infection in young children, is responsible for significant mortality of infants worldwide. Stephania Cormier, PhD, is bringing $727,500 in grant money to Memphis to research the virus and better understand the role it plays in the development of asthma in children who have had it.

In 2011, while at Louisiana State University (LSU) Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, Dr. Cormier received a grant totaling $1,035,000 from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a subsidiary of the National Institutes of Health, to research RSV and RSV-related asthma. Her research titled, “The Role of IL4R Alpha in Neonatal RSV Immunopathology,” is being conducted over a four-year period.

When she joined UTHSC as an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics in April, she brought the remaining funding and five members of her staff to her Memphis research lab. Dr. Cormier is also an infectious disease researcher at Le Bonheur Children’s Research Hospital. Her lab is part of the Children’s Foundation Research Institute, located at Le Bonheur.

Dr. Cormier’s data in the RSV study suggests that age at initial infection is an important factor in determining whether asthma develops. Most instances of RSV occur by the time a child is one year old. But the sickest infants are those infected prior to six months of age. Her research is aimed at understanding the mechanisms responsible for the influence of age on asthma development.

“Our goal is to understand the importance of age at initial infection with RSV on the development of asthma,” said Dr. Cormier. “We have observed changes in expression of a particular molecule – IL4 receptor alpha – with age on certain immune cells. It is highest on the surface of immune cells from infants, and decreases with age. (Its expression is low on adult immune cells.) If we genetically manipulate infant cells to reduce expression of this protein, then RSV infection of infants fails to induce asthma.”

If successful, the concepts established will not only have important implications for understanding mechanisms of RSV-related asthma, but also for understanding infant immunity, so pediatric vaccines can be developed.

Dr. Cormier also brings an anticipated $1,625,915 in grant funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) over the next five years to study the effect of combustion-generated particulate pollution on infant respiratory health.

Through the NIEHS grant, Dr. Cormier and her team are researching the effects of particulate matter from combustion processes, such as vehicular exhaust, wood burning or cigarette smoke, on lower respiratory tract infections in children. The infection risk is highest in infants, and findings show that age at the time of exposure to particulate matter is important in predicting influenza susceptibility and severity. The team will research how exposure to particulate matter increases severity of influenza in infants, whether it affects lung and immune function, and what role the airway epithelium plays in immune response.

Dr. Cormier brings $238,580 in grant funding to UTHSC from the NIEHS through the LSU Superfund Research Program, for which she serves as co-director and project leader.  The program grant, totaling more than $13 million, is focused on understanding  how environmentally persistent free radicals (EPFRs), a new class of pollutants identified in contaminated soils at Superfund sites and formed from combustion and thermal treatment of hazardous substances.  Dr. Cormier’s project is to determine how exposure to EPFRs impacts adult respiratory health, and in particular the development of asthma.