IN CONVERSATION: Mary Prunicki, MD, PhD
NIH Career Re-entry Scientist
We are very fortunate to have Dr. Prunicki working towards understanding the effects of of air pollution on allergy and asthma, and overall immune health. She has a personal stake in the Center's research, as allergies positively impacted her career path more than she anticipated.
Dr. Mary Prunicki has a personal stake in allergy research as her two eldest children have food allergies. Their food allergy diagnosis has had a huge impact on her family and her career. She was in the middle of her Family Medicine residency in St Louis, MO, when her first daughter was born. Soon came the diagnosis of food allergy. Within a few years her second daughter was also diagnosed with food allergies. Dr. Prunicki had taken what she intended to be a temporary break from her residency when her first daughter was born. However, with both her daughters having food allergies, she struggled with going back to complete her residency. She recalls the time when she was faced with the lethalness of their food allergies and recalls the helplessness she felt, “My eldest daughter went into anaphylaxis from peanut dust on a connecting flight from Illinois to California. I disembarked with my three children and we rushed to a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee in an ambulance.” She says that this experience transformed her.
On that ambulance ride, I decided to go back to doing research. I wanted to help my children and other children suffering from allergies.
Dr. Prunicki initially started her career as a neurophysiologist, after completing her PhD in Psychobiology from Northwestern University, monitoring brain and spinal cord surgeries, running an electroencephalography lab, and conducting brainwave research at the Chicago Institute for Neuroscience and Neuroresearch. “I have always loved research and now with a background in the medical sciences, I felt that I could make a difference in allergy research. I started talking to researchers in the field and soon met Dr. Nadeau. Soon everything fell into place, and I have never looked back on my decision to switch fields” she recalls.
Dr. Prunicki is interested in basic research and in understanding the factors responsible for the increasing rates of allergy and asthma and the underlying biological mechanisms that are being altered in these diseases. A natural progression of allergic diseases has often been observed (eczema in infancy followed by food allergy, asthma and hay fever). These diseases also present with high levels of IgE and it is suggested that these diseases may be different manifestations of the same underlying disease. An understanding of the mechanisms underlying one disease is likely to assist with finding a cure for another allergic disease. For example, omalizumab, an anti-IgE therapy was initially approved for asthma and has now found to be effective as adjunctive treatment during immunotherapy for food allergy.
The fundamental questions she is interested in answering led her to apply for an NIH grant to study the effects of air pollution on asthmatic children. One of the reasons that this research is of interest to her is that Fresno, a community in California’s Central Valley, about 170 miles from Stanford, is one of the most polluted cities for fine air particle pollution. Fine particles are produced from all types of combustion, including motor vehicles, power plants, residential wood burning, forest fires, agricultural burning, and some industrial processes. Dr. Prunicki analyzed blood obtained from children from Fresno exposed to varying levels of pollution. The pollution exposure for each home was determined based on its distance from air quality monitoring stations. The results of her study indicate that increasing levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and fine particulate matter is associated with alterations in the methylation of key genes (called epigenetic modifications) involved in allergy and asthma. These modifications do not change the fundamental nature of genes but tag the genes so that the expression of key immune factors are altered. These findings may ultimately be applied to develop therapy or to enable better diagnosis of allergy and asthma. As a follow up to the Fresno children’s study, she hopes to merge her prior knowledge in psychobiology with immunology and investigate the impact of stressors on the immune system.
In Fresno, she is also analyzing blood obtained from pregnant women, umbilical cords, infants, and children in order to understand the development of allergies and asthma and is pursuing the use of technology to improve asthma education and management for the underserved, minority children of Fresno. In recent years, flavored e-cigarettes are being targeted to teens as a healthy alternative to cigarettes. This recent trend has sparking her interest in studying the effects of e-cigarettes on the immune system.
"I hope that my research can be used to educate others about the effects of pollutants on our immune system and ultimately change public policy so that our children will be left with a better environment and lead healthier lives," she shared.
Dr. Prunicki finds the research very rewarding. She recently co-authored a chapter in with Dr. Nadeau titled, The Air We Breathe: How Extreme Weather Conditions Harm Us. Her research has personally made her much more aware of the importance of environmental issues and cognizant of the changes that she can make to limit air pollution.
We are very fortunate to have Dr. Prunicki working towards understanding the effects of of air pollution on allergy and asthma and overall immune health. We look forward to seeing the data from her research being used to advocate for a healthier environment.
Interview by Vanitha Sampath
Vanitha Sampath received her PhD in Nutrition from the University of California at Davis. At the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research, as a medical writer and content manager, she enjoys being in the midst of groundbreaking research in asthma and allergy and is committed to communicating the scientific advances of the Center and spreading awareness of its mission and vision.