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Coral reef ;

Tackling the climate crisis to safeguard human health: asthma, cancer & cardiovascular health

Professor Franca Fraternali & Dr Daniel Koch

Professor in Bioinformatics & Computational Biology, Post-doctoral Researcher

08 November 2021

A Randall special series in response to COP26 - Part 2

The bad news first: The climate crisis is the biggest health challenge of the 21st century. It threatens to impede future medical progress and even undermines the advances we’ve made in the last 50 years. Between 2030 and 2050 the World Health Organisation (WHO) expects climate change to cause 250 000 deaths annually. It is expected that by 2030 already, the costs to health due to climate change will amount to 2-4 billion US dollars per year.

How does this relate to what we do at the Randall Centre for Cell & Molecular Biophysics?

The direct dangers from climate change are particularly relevant for people with cardiovascular disease, a major research focus of scientists at the Randall Centre. In the UK alone, about 7.6 million people are currently living with cardiovascular disease of some form. Extreme heat events - like the 2003 heat wave which caused >70 thousand deaths across Europe – are becoming increasingly frequent as a consequence of the climate crisis. For people with cardiovascular diseases such as heart failure, heat waves are life-threatening events causing additional stress to the heart: as blood flow is redirected to the skin to cool down, the heart is required to pump faster and work more, easily overwhelming a damaged heart. Dehydration and other mechanisms, too, can be lethal bodily responses to heat.

The molecular mechanisms underlying asthma and allergies are another important research focus at the Randall Centre. “The expectations of the effects of climate change don’t bode well for people with allergic disorders and/or those with compromised lung function” says James McDonnell, Professor of Molecular Immunology at the Randall Centre.

Very briefly, the predictions fall into a few major categories: (1) climate change will worsen air pollution and lead to greater risks for people with lung diseases; (2) hotter weather will lead to longer and more intense pollen seasons, resulting in greater number of allergic incidents and resulting asthma attacks; (3) extreme weather events lead to greater allergy risks and exposures. The latter is exemplified in several very dangerous incidents of ‘Thunderstorm Asthma’”.– James McDonnell, Professor of Molecular Immunology

Cancer, the third research focus at our institute, does not exist outside of the climate crisis’ sphere of influence either. Apart from likely increasing risk factors (air pollution, ultraviolet radiation exposures, food production and nutrition, environmental toxicants and others), the big challenge lies in the additional strain climate change will put onto our health care systems, threatening our resources for diagnosis, treatment and care of cancer patients.

Many other important health issues not covered by research at the Randall (such as mental health) are severely aggravated by the climate crisis and our response (or lack thereof) to it. To see the many decades of hard work we are spending in the collective effort to improve human health being undermined by the climate crisis is extremely frustrating for us biomedical scientists.

The good news is: many solutions for limiting greenhouse gas emissions (public transport, electric vehicles, cycling, plant-based diets) have immediate benefits for health and the environment, while at the same time reducing exposure to risks and stressors. For example: transforming the transport infrastructure into a system based mainly on public transport and renewable energy, particularly in urban areas, not only reduces CO2 emissions, but also noise and air pollution, thereby reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease and asthma attacks as well as the symptomatic burden for those already affected.

Limiting global temperature increase to 1.5°C offers further benefits to biomedical research for another reason: at 1.5°C, there is still a chance for 10-30% of coral reefs to survive and eventually adapt. These complex ecosystems are not only incredibly beautiful, their biodiversity is host to a vast library of biochemical substances of great therapeutic potential. Multiple important anti-cancer drugs such as cytarabin and eribulin have been derived from molecules first identified in coral reef organisms and yet we are still at the very beginning of exploring the potential of these ecosystems for biomedical research.

Tackling the climate crisis and biodiversity loss not only will prevent enormous health risks, but even improve the livelihoods and health of billions of people worldwide and safeguard the progress of biomedical science.

In part 3 of our series, we will highlight some of the actions we can take on the societal, institutional and individual level to address the climate crisis.



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In this story

Franca Fraternali

Franca Fraternali

Visiting Professor in Bioinformatics & Computational Biology

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