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Breathing Easy

Qiang He.

Professor Qiang He

Microbes are a vital part of life and “good” ones play key roles in several systems within the human body.

Some, like yeast, are even purposefully added to various foodstuffs that people consume with no ill effects on a daily basis around the world.

Then, there are the “bad” ones, those that have caused disease, infections, deaths, and have generally been one of the biggest foes throughout human history, even being weaponized for use in war.

Finding new and better ways of preventing such microorganisms from afflicting people is one of the key tasks taken on by Professor Qiang He.

“There will always be microbes in human environments for as long as there are humans,” said He. “The key is to limit exposure to the bad ones. In a lot of situations, it comes down to altering human behavior or helping people understand the danger in what they might be doing, often inadvertently.”

He has led recent efforts to mitigate those risks, including one aimed at protecting some of the most vulnerable people: those on nebulizers.

Nebulizers help treat patients with a variety of respiratory issues by delivering medicine-laden vapors into their lungs, typically through a mouthpiece or mask. Since anyone using one already has a medical complication to begin with, adding microbes to the mix could lead to horrible outcomes.

“Infections caught once a patient is already in the hospital are the cause of a significant number of deaths around the world every year,” said He. “Contaminated machinery plays a big role in that, so steps are taken to make sure things are clean, but there is still a lot of microbial transfer that takes place despite these efforts. Contaminated nebulizers, in particular, expedite the spread of microbes by being inhaled directly into the lungs, so we need to figure out how to keep that from happening.”

The first step toward solving any problem is to identify what the actual target is. In He’s case, that meant figuring out what types of microbes were particularly resilient in the face of standard cleaning practices.

They did this by developing microbial fingerprinting techniques, which use DNA sequencing to identify microbes and place biomarkers to readily identify their sources.

By knowing which microbes to monitor and where they were likely to be, the findings could greatly help reduce the number of illnesses, saving both time and lives.