Columbia asthma researcher awarded prestigious research grant

July 13, 2001

R. Graham Barr, an instructor in the Division of General Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, has been named to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Generalist Physician Faculty Scholars Program, an initiative designed to help outstanding junior generalist faculty members launch successful research careers while maintaining their clinical and teaching skills. Dr. Barr will receive a $300,000 grant over the next four years to study a possible correlation between asthma and the usage of over-the-counter pain relievers.

Dr. Barr, a native of Scotland and a 20-year resident of the United States, received his medical degree from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. After completing his residency at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, Dr. Barr completed a fellowship in general medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, and undertook graduate studies in public health-nurturing a strong interest in the etiology, as well as social and economic underpinnings, of respiratory disease. Dr. Barr currently is completing a doctoral degree in epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, specializing in asthma and emphysema.

"I am delighted to hear of Dr. Barr's selection," said Dr. Steven Shea, Hamilton Southworth Professor of General Medicine (and Dr. Barr's mentor throughout his residency at Columbia-Presbyterian). "He is an invaluable colleague, a skilled collaborator, and a noteworthy addition to Columbia's roster of Faculty Scholars. I am thrilled that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation chose to acknowledge Dr. Barr in this manner, enabling him to carry out work that, I believe, has the potential to make a real difference in the lives of chronically ill asthma patients."

Under the auspices of the Generalist Physician Scholars Program, Dr. Barr will explore a possible relationship between the rising use of acetaminophen and other analgesics (such as aspirin, ibuprofen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and a 20-year increase in asthma. In preliminary studies, researchers have found that acetaminophen--the usage of which has increased significantly over the past two to three decades-reduces levels of glutathione, an anti-oxidant that may protect against hyper-reactivity in the lungs and mediate other inflammatory mechanisms. This effect might account for some of the increasing prevalence of asthma, a disease characterized by chronic respiratory inflammation.

Over the next four years, Dr. Barr will probe this hypothesis further, looking closely at the use of acetaminophen and other analgesics among patients who visit the emergency room at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center for asthma-related problems.

"We're focusing our efforts on the community around Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, an economically disadvantaged population with high asthma prevalence," said Dr. Barr. "But if this association can be confirmed, it will have broad implications-both for the treatment of asthma and for public education about the use of over-the-counter pain medications."

The Generalist Physician Faculty Scholars Program was established by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 1993 to help strengthen generalist physician faculty in the nation's medical schools, helping qualified individuals improve their research capacities while continuing to develop their core competencies in clinical medicine and instruction. The program offers career development awards to outstanding junior medical school faculty who specialize in one of the three generalist disciplines (family practice, general internal medicine, and general pediatrics). Grants are made to sponsoring institutions to help cover the salaries and research expenses of award recipients, provided that they spend 40 percent of their time on research and other scholarly pursuits. In turn, Faculty Scholars gain unique opportunities to interact with leading academicians in their areas of concentration-and to keep abreast of the latest research and clinical developments in general medicine-through participation in annual meetings.
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The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) was founded in 1972 and today is the largest U.S. foundation devoted to the issues of health and health care. Through carefully chosen grant-making activities, RWJF works toward ensuring that all Americans have access to basic health care at reasonable cost; improving care and support for people with chronic medical conditions; and reducing the personal, social, and economic harm caused by substance abuse.

Columbia University Medical Center

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