Researchers with the Energy Department's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are working to learn more about the health and safety of first responders through a two-year project known as BRAVE — Biomedical Resilience and Readiness in Adverse Operating Environments.

The team already has collected samples of saliva, blood and urine from Los Angeles County firefighters who have volunteered to be part of the study.

Researchers now plan to analyze measures of molecular activity — proteins, molecular messages known as transcripts, and metabolites — to create new ways to monitor and predict the effects of stressors on the body.

They hope to learn, for instance, do molecular signals exist that indicate which firefighter will suffer from heat stroke or over-exertion as they climb the stairs of a high-rise building? One objective is to monitor responders more closely and pull them off the line before they are at risk.

Genetics and environment

The firefighter study is one of several efforts to study how genetics and a range of environmental factors influence responder readiness and health. The researchers said one such example is Gulf War Syndrome, a condition marked by fatigue, cognitive problems and other maladies. Some soldiers — those without certain forms of a gene known as HLA — were much more likely to develop the syndrome during and after the Gulf War. Scientists believe that environmental factors including smoke from burning oil wells, pesticides, extreme fatigue and chemical agents played an important role in causing the syndrome, but an individual’s genes helped determine their vulnerability.

Studying sleep

Among the stressors commonly experienced by first responders is sleep deprivation.

The laboratory launched a study with scientists at Washington State University’s Sleep and Performance Research Center looking at more than 800 potential biomarkers to learn what happens when the body’s sleep rhythms are disrupted.

Physicians know that shift work and disruption of normal sleep cycles make people more vulnerable to conditions like obesity, diabetes and cancer. But understanding precisely how that happens is unknown, the researchers said. One question is how the body’s central clock, which adjusts more quickly to changes, aligns with several “sub-clocks” or peripheral body blocks that regulate metabolic function in the pancreas, liver and other organs.

Several genes known to suppress cancer are more apt to change in unexpected ways in shift workers compared to those in people who maintain a normal wake/sleep cycle. The rate of processes like rearrangements and mutations in DNA indicate more “genome instability” in patients with disrupted sleep cycles.

Deep learning and toxic substances

In an additional joint study with the U.S. Air Force, laboratory scientists hope to learn more about toxic substances that first responders can encounter. Since March, the BRAVE team has analyzed 4.7 million images provided by the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, using deep learning to look at images of cells from more than 200 people. The cells were exposed to a range of substances.

Possible outcomes include new methods to rapidly classify different types of exposure more quickly, and the identification of genes that make some people more vulnerable to some substances than others.