DERT Stories of Success
Sven-Eric Jordt, Ph.D
Sven-Eric Jordt, Ph.D., investigates sensory neuron ion channels called transient receptor potential (TRP) channels. The ion channel is found in large numbers in the eyes, where it causes tears, as well as in the throat and larynx, where it initiates the coughing reflex.His early research linked these channels to pain sensing, and more recently he found that the channels are also responsible for the watery eyes and coughing reactions some people have when exposed to cigarette smoke and other environmental irritants. Understanding how TRP channels work could lead to new pain medicines, asthma therapies, and ways to counteract chemical warfare agents.
Jordt, an associate professor at Yale University, belonged to the first class of NIEHS Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) awardees in 2006. The ONES program cultivates future environmental health research leaders by providing them with five years of research funding in addition to career development. Jordt also received a prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) in 2006. This award recognizes young scientists that the White House considers “the most promising researchers in the Nation within their fields.”
“At the time I was involved in neuroscience and physiology work, but I wanted to know more about how to take an environmental health approach to studying these ion channels,” he said. “Receiving the ONES grant catalyzed my transition to environmental health research and set the trajectory for my future work.”
With the ONES funding, Jordt performed mouse studies that confirmed the role of the TRP channel TRPA1 in sensitivity to irritants. The channel also appears to be involved in allergies and asthma. Jordt has found that mice modified to be deficient in the TRPA1 channel don’t get asthma, and he is now working to better understand why some people are very sensitive to perfumes or cleaners at very low levels.
In other NIEHS-funded work Jordt found that TRPA1 is responsible for skin and respiratory reactions to chemical warfare agents such as chlorine and tear gas. These chemicals activate the channel in a way that is much more potent than other irritants, and Jordt is using this information to explore new treatments for lung and skin injury resulting from chemical warfare agents and industrial chemicals.
The TRPA1 channel is also responsible for the irritating effects of cigarette smoke. Jordt’s research is showing that menthol, which is found in all cigarettes, binds to the channel and reduces the sensation of irritation for a broad spectrum of cigarette smoke irritants. He points out that the Family Smoking Prevention and Control Act signed into law in 2009 gave the Food and Drug Administration authority to ban flavored cigarettes but exempted menthol for the time being so that the science could be more closely examined.
“I hypothesize that menthol facilitates becoming addicted to cigarettes and thus helps turn beginning smokers into chronic smokers,” he said. If this hypothesis holds true, it could have future policy implications.