National Jewish Health Center for Deployment-Related Lung Disease committed to finding answers, providing care for veterans facing debilitating respiratory illnesses

Researchers work to advance understanding and treatment of lung injuries in veterans after federal passage of the PACT Act.

(DENVER) – Nearly 70% of military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan experienced respiratory symptoms during their service and, for many, lung disease continues to impact their ability to serve and also to live their daily lives as civilians. The recent passage of the national Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act recognizes lung injuries that veterans suffered during deployment and that continue to impact their lives. Now, researchers at the Center for Deployment-Related Lung Disease at National Jewish Health are working to advance the science to understand the exact cause of their illnesses and how to provide veterans with the best care possible.

“We saw service members who were very athletic with their units, elite athletes who could run a six-minute mile, who couldn’t pass their physical fitness test when they returned home,” said Richard Meehan, MD, a rheumatologist at National Jewish Health and co-director of the Center for Deployment-Related Lung Disease. “Toxic burn pits, industrial pollution, hazardous chemicals and a constant cloud of thick, yet fine dust infiltrated the deepest areas of the lungs of those who served, and now we’re seeing the effects.”

The first step was understanding the range of injury and illness and the possible causes of the symptoms veterans were experiencing. So experts at the Center for Deployment-Related Lung Disease developed protocols to get to the root of the problem. For many patients, standard lung function tests appear normal in veterans, in which case they have to look deeper, to the smallest airways in the lungs. Normally, this requires a surgical lung biopsy, which can be risky and painful. To address that issue, pulmonologists at National Jewish Health implemented the use of a simple, non-invasive test called “lung clearance index,” that provides the same valuable information.

“Patients breathe normally into a mouthpiece and the machine delivers gas. Then we can observe how long it takes for the lungs to wash it out,” said Cecile Rose, MD, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health. “If the small airways are damaged, if they are constricted, if they are inflamed, then it takes longer for the gas to wash out.”    

Advancements such as this provide answers for veterans and help advance research toward more effective treatments. The ongoing research is being shared with pulmonologists and Veteran Affairs medical centers across the country to help veterans find the specialized respiratory care they need. National Jewish Health is also leading several clinical trials, including one that will examine a supplement they hope will help control deployment-related asthma.

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Cecile Rose, MD, examines Air Force veteran John Sepulveda at the Center for Deployment-Related Lung Disease at National Jewish Health. The Center was created to better understand the complex lung injuries suffered by veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan so researchers can develop effective treatments.

Since his deployment to Afghanistan in 2011, John Sepulveda has suffered from chronic illness and a constant cough that makes any physical activity difficult. It’s a common experience for those who served in the Middle East, where poor air quality and toxic burn pits caused extensive lung damage.

Richard Meehan, MD, is a Navy veteran and co-director of the Center for Deployment-Related Lung Disease, which was founded in 2018 in response to an influx of veterans experiencing debilitating respiratory issues after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pulmonologists at the Center for Deployment-Related Lung Disease use a test called “lung clearance index” to non-invasively examine the extent of injury to the deepest and smallest airways in the lungs, which are particularly vulnerable to the combustion smoke and desert dust that military members were exposed to in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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