An unlikely collaboration between a doctor and geologist

Scientific research can make strange bedfellows. In treating veterans with respiratory problems, one doctor sought help from an unlikely collaborator, a geologist who studies meteorites.


Scientific research can make strange bedfellows.

In treating veterans with respiratory problems, one doctor sought help from an unlikely collaborator -- a geoscientist who studies meteorites.

Here's the story.

U.S. Army veteran Specialist E4 Jonathan Ray Molina says he has a hard time doing the activities he once loved.

He experiences respiratory issues from serving in Iraq back in 2007.

A lot of friends, you know, have had the same issues, but nobody can ever really get a solid answer as to what really caused it.

In search of those answers, Molina traveled from his home in Texas to Long Island, New York, to see Dr. Anthony Szema, an allergy, immunology, and pulmonary disease specialist affiliated with Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine and Stony Brook University.

Szema has been treating veterans for 20 years.

Over a decade ago, he noticed that some soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were experiencing breathing problems.

In 2004, we realized that at a VA hospital where most of the patients usually were 80-year-old men in wheelchairs, there were young women and men of all ethnicities, in uniform, who were 20, 30 years old who showed up saying that they were short of breath.

In fact, the index case for me was that there was an all-state football player from Garden City who had never had asthma or exercise problems, was in perfect shape, and he noticed he was symptomatic, and all he said -- 'Get me back.

I want to go back to the fight.'

Szema suspected that dust particles from the air or particulate matter found in their lung tissue could possibly be causing their problems.

He teamed up with an unlikely partner -- a geologist at Stony Brook University, Timothy Glotch -- to get a closer look at the problem.

I'm always looking for projects that are kind of outside of my comfort zone, and this certainly qualifies, you know, for that.

And, you know, I'm happy to be working on a project that could have some kind of real-world implications for heroes.

This is a novel field.

This is a brand-new field.

We're taking doctors and geologists and we're creating a new field called medical geology or medical geosciences.

Szema says there could be a handful of reasons veterans are experiencing these lung problems.

The climates in Iraq and Afghanistan are harsh.

Dust storms kick up loose sand and other sharp particles, which can cause lung scarring if inhaled.

Then there's damage from the war itself, like blasts from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that project smoke and debris.

Another cause of these breathing problems could be the unknown long-term impact of burn pits.

It's just a, you know, big hole in the ground that's covered with medical waste, lithium batteries, car batteries, like, Humvee tires.

All reduced to ash and smoke.

Some were located near military living quarters.

An initial study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine concluded that there's only limited evidence suggesting a connection between pulmonary problems and burn pits.

Szema says research linking burn pits to health issues could help inform veteran healthcare moving forward.

To find that link, he looked beyond medicine, into the field of geoscience.

His question -- What makes up the particulate matter found in these veterans' lung tissue?

'Oh, I actually have an instrument that might be helpful.'

You know, we can look at really small things, we can get the mineralogy, we can tell you not just what metal is in there, but what species of metal is in.

This particular instrument is also really good at looking at organic molecules and organic contaminants.

Glotch works with a Raman spectrometer, a machine he usually uses to examine meteorites and chunks of rock.

The spectrometer uses a laser to identify a material's chemical fingerprint.

He saw no reason why he couldn't examine lung tissue with the device.

The Raman spectrometer could tell him whether the particles in the lungs had been burned and if the chemical change that occurred from that burning had created a substance that was harmful to humans.

And so, we can identify certain molecules called PAHs -- polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons -- that can be carcinogenic, and what Dr. Szema especially wanted to know was, are there PAHs associated with dust grains or not?

And that's what we're trying to figure out.

In order to work together, Szema and Glotch first had to develop a common language and set of protocols.

I don't know anything about geology or geochemistry, and they don't know that much about medicine, so we have to learn from each other.

[ Laughs ]

We had no idea what we were looking at, you know, so these are slices of lung with little bits of dust in them, and we're used to looking at rocks that are cut and polished and put on a slide, and then we look under there.

So we had a really hard time interpreting even what we were supposed to be looking for.

And he actually had a pathologist actually draw on some of the slides with little marker dots, say, 'Oh, this is where you can see a little piece of dust, this is where you can see a little piece of dust', and so that actually helped us pinpoint what we were looking at.

And so, what we needed to, you know, learn kind of on the geosciences side was, yeah, not everything looks like what we're used to seeing, which makes sense, right?

And so, we kind of take our tools that we use to, you know, study those types of samples and just apply them to this new problem.

It's a work in progress, and if Glotch and Szema can identify the causes of lung issues affecting veterans using the Raman spectrometer and pinpoint any long-term concerns, they may give veterans and others long-sought-after answers.

If you were able to figure out what was making you sick, specifically, what would that mean for you?

That would mean the world for me, honestly.