Two University of Kentucky researchers in the College of Medicine are studying the impact of drinking alcohol on the immune system and lungs.

Ilhem Messaoudi, PhD, chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics, and Jamie Sturgill, PhD, an assistant professor in the department, are combining their areas of expertise, thanks to a diversity supplement to an National Institutes of Health grant from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism(NIAAA), to better understand how heavy alcohol use affects a specific group of immune cells and their function in the lungs.

NIAAA defines heavy drinking for men as consuming more than four drinks in a day or more than 14 per week, and for women, more than three drinks in a day or seven-plus per week.

“We’re in bourbon country. Drinking is prevalent in our society. I don’t think people really understand that alcohol use disorder — commonly referred to as ‘alcoholism’ — and chronic heavy drinking have significant health effects. It’s also a big risk factor for poor outcomes from COVID-19,” said Sturgill.

“Individuals who engage in chronic heavy drinking are at higher risk of community-acquired pneumonia, HCV, HIV infection. They have a higher propensity to develop acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS),” explained Messaoudi. “If they do have an injury of some sort, like a car accident or a burn injury, they tend to stay in the hospital longer and get more secondary bacterial infections. Wound healing or wound closure is significantly delayed in those individuals.”

Messaoudi wants to know why that happens. Her study is in partnership with the Oregon National Primate Research Center. As part of the trial, nonhuman primates voluntarily drink ethanol, the intoxicating ingredient in many alcoholic beverages, and sometimes drink to excess. Researchers then monitor a specific population of immune cells known as monocytes and macrophages.

“To use a UK reference, they’re the John Wall of the immune system,” said Sturgill.

“They know how to pass, how to rebound, but they really coordinate the rest of the immune system. They’re critical early on,” said Messaoudi.

Monocytes and macrophages are also the primary immune cell in a normal, healthy lung. That’s where Sturgill’s research in critical care and the immune response in ARDS comes in.  

“I started to see an exorbitant number of patients in the ICU who have a history of alcohol use disorder. Patients will come in with liver failure, cirrhosis and things like that,” said Sturgill. “And then after a few days in the ICU, they need mechanical ventilation. We see this phenomenon over and over again because alcohol use disorder is very prevalent in Kentucky.”

Roughly 187,000 Kentuckians age 12 or older have alcohol use disorder, according to a 2019 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In young adults (age 18 to 25), nearly 7% have the disorder.

“I think the systemic effects alcohol has on the body is very underappreciated while our state continues to battle widespread substance use disorder,” said Sturgill.

Messaoudi emphasized the need to raise public awareness about chronic heavy drinking while gaining knowledge to better care for patients. 

“Any time that you increase the fundamental understanding of how a pathological process is happening, that is one step forward for us to reconsider what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and is that the best thing that makes sense,” said Messaoudi.

Supporting diversity

The pair are also crediting a Diversity Supplement from the NIAAA and sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to bolster this research. The goal of the grant is “to help increase the numbers of underrepresented scientists in biomedical and behavioral research,” according to the NIAAA. Funding is provided to existing research grants to support diversity.

Messaoudi learned of Sturgill’s research interest in ARDS and realized their work paired well and their individual expertise meshed. After connecting with UK’s Proposal Development Office for help earning the grant, the two formed a mentor relationship. They hope this trend and earning more supplemental grants continue to strengthen UK researchers from all backgrounds.

“Being from Appalachia, I’m really passionate about improving health outcomes for people in Appalachia,” said Sturgill. “These grants are great ways to help elevate anyone from graduate students to junior faculty from Eastern Kentucky because a lot of people from Kentucky want to stay here. We all love Kentucky.”

“We need to take advantage of every tool at our disposal to increase the diversity of our trainee and faculty pipelines here at UK. Diversity supplements are one such tool,” said Messaoudi.