Research News

Heart Association awards fellowship to graduate epidemiology student

By BARBARA BRANNING

Published February 10, 2020

headshot of Jason Niu.
“My long-term goal is to prompt population-wide cardiovascular health by identifying and controlling early-life risk factors of cardiovascular disease.”
Zhongzheng (Jason) Niu, PhD student
School of Public Health and Health Professions

The American Heart Association has awarded a one-year, pre-doctoral fellowship to Zhongzheng (Jason) Niu, a third-year student in the epidemiology PhD program in the School of Public Health and Health Professions.

The $31,016 award will fund Niu’s research into the relationship between early-life secondhand smoke exposure and cardiovascular disease later in life.

“It’s very exciting to receive this award,” Niu says. “I am also very happy because the fellowship indicates in a certain way that the AHA, one of the most authoritative figures in cardiovascular research, recognizes my idea of working on early-life risk factors to understand and prevent cardiovascular disease.”

In his thesis project, titled “Air pollution, telomere length, and cardiovascular disease: a life course study,” Niu is studying the role poor air quality plays in the development of health problems in the heart and blood vessels. In addition, he is examining telomeres, which are compound structures found at the ends of chromosomes that protect chromosomes from deteriorating or fusing with neighboring chromosomes. Previous research in the field has found that telomeres are shorter in people who have died prematurely or suffer from aging-related diseases.

Niu’s work will involve analyzing data from three cohort studies that cover the entire life span from conception through death.

The first part covers the earliest phase, from conception through birth. He expects to understand whether infants will be born with shorter telomeres if they are exposed to air particulates less than 2.5 micrometers in aerodynamic diameter while still in the womb.

This phase of the project is based on research conducted from 2016 to 2019 by Lina Mu, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health, and Niu’s primary advisor.

Mu and colleagues conducted a pilot study in Beijing, China, in which 300 women in early pregnancy were recruited and followed-up with to see to what degree exposure to air pollution changed their children’s birth and developmental outcomes, including telomere length.

With the guidance of Meng Wang, assistant professor of epidemiology and environmental health, Niu was able to estimate the air pollution levels among the study’s participants.

The second phase of Niu’s research, and the part that is being funded by AHA through December, will explore whether exposure to secondhand smoke in utero and in early life predisposed people to higher risks of cardiovascular disease in later life, and will attempt to pinpoint the most sensitive period of exposure.

For this phase, he will analyze data collected in Boston and Providence, R.I., in 2010 from 1,674 adult offspring of women recruited for a pregnancy and birth cohort study in the 1960s. He has access to this dataset through Xiaozhong Wen, associate professor of pediatrics, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, who has worked on the long-range project.

“The research is unique because it is one of the few cohorts in the United States that has followed the adult offspring from a birth cohort over five decades,” Niu says. “In addition, the rich dataset provides me an opportunity to examine how telomere length, a biomarker of cellular aging, could be influenced by secondhand smoke, and thus may further affect cardiovascular disease.”

The third phase of his dissertation aims to understand whether air pollution exposure and shorter telomeres in adulthood are related to future death from cardiovascular disease, using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Niu says his findings will help to better understand the cardiovascular disease process as it relates to environmental exposure to air pollution and telomere biology, which could lead to better primary prevention in the future.

“Cardiovascular disease is still the No. 1 killer in the United States and accumulative evidence indicates this disease has origins in early life,” Niu says. “My long-term goal is to prompt population-wide cardiovascular health by identifying and controlling early-life risk factors of cardiovascular disease.”