Health & Wellness

Bad Breaths: USU Scientist Studies Effects of Particulate Air Pollution on Human Lung Cells

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto |

USU Undergraduate Research Fellow Rachel Sagers is investigating the effects of particulate air pollution on human lung cells. The biology and public health major presents her research on Utah's Capitol Hill Tuesday, Feb. 18. M. Muffoletto.

The characteristics that make Cache Valley, home of Utah State University, an enchanting place to live – encircling, majestic peaks; pastoral scenes of grazing cattle and snowy landscapes – are the very factors that contribute to one of the area’s not-so-attractive qualities: smoggy winters.

During cold months, emissions from the tailpipes of cars – and livestock – contribute to the gray mist that hangs ominously over the bowl-shaped valley, where high pressure weather systems trap particulate matter like a lid on a pot.

The air pollution not only mars the view, but also poses a risk to public health, says Utah State University Undergraduate Research Fellow Rachel Sagers.

 “Our valley’s high concentrations of fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) are among some of the worst reported in the United States,” says Sagers, a USU Honors student majoring in human biology and public health, with an environmental health emphasis. “Exposure to PM2.5 is associated with cancer and a variety of cardiovascular, cardiopulmonary and neurodegenerative diseases, but no long-term studies have been conducted in our valley, so limited data is available.”

Sagers is among about 30 USU undergraduates, who’ll present their work to state legislators and visitors in Utah’s Capitol Rotunda in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, from 8 a.m.-1 p.m. The annual Undergraduate Research Day, initiated by USU in 2000, is designed to showcase the importance of research in undergraduate education.

With faculty mentor Roger Coulombe, professor of toxicology in USU’s Department of Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences, Sagers is comparing responses of human lung cells exposed to Cache Valley particulate air pollution to cells exposed to diesel exhaust particulates. Coulombe’s research is supported by the Marriner S. Eccles Foundation.

“Previous studies have shown Cache Valley particulate pollution has pro-inflammatory effects, which have been linked to enhanced activation of Akt (protein kinase B) in many pulmonary epithelial cells,” says Sagers, who entered USU on a Presidential Scholarship. “Much more data, from large studies in such places as Mexico City and Houston, is available on the effects of diesel exhaust particles, so we used findings from those studies as a comparison.” 

Among Sagers and Coulombe’s findings was, indeed, significantly increased expression of inflammatory markers, along with activation of Akt-dependent pathways. An increase in Akt (protein kinase B) signaling and inflammation is linked to the development of cardiovascular disease, cancer and Type II diabetes. 

“Our findings support our hypothesis that Cache Valley PM2.5 induces pro-carcinogenic pathways with potency similar to diesel exhaust particulates,” Sagers says. “This lays the groundwork for continued study.”

Participating in research, she says, has taught her a lot about research design, the repetitive tasks required of a research project and the need for patience.

“It can be a long, boring and tedious effort,” Sagers says. “But when you get results, the excitement makes all the work worth it.”

The Midwest native, who graduated from Illinois’ Normal Community High School in 2016, plans to pursue a combined M.D./Ph.D. graduate program following graduation from Utah State.

“I hope to continue in a research career,” she says.

USU undergrad researcher Rachel Sagers, left, with faculty mentor, Professor Roger Coulombe, right, found exposure to Cache Valley PM2.5 pollution poses health risks. M. Muffoletto.


Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science


Rachel Sagers
Undergraduate Research Fellow
College of Science

Roger Coulombe
Department of Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences



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