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Winters in the Cache Valley get ugly when inverted temperature gradients trap particulate pollution near the ground, where it can irritate lung tissue and cause health problems. Now a Utah supplement maker is exploiting the state's notorious inversions to test whether its products reduce inflammation and protect pulmonary function.

USANA Health Sciences has given Utah State University $147,000 to run a randomized study with the help of Logan-area residents who have agreed to take a twice-daily packet of supplements or placebos, and get their lungs and blood tested seven times this winter.

This clinical trial, deploying gold-standard methods for sound science, is part of a growing effort by supplements makers to prove the benefit of their products. USANA now spends nearly $1 million a year on research and has a long-standing relationship with Oregon State University, according to the company's R&D director, John Cuomo.

"Whenever you do clinical studies, you never know what the outcome will be," Cuomo said. "We want to make sure we are putting together products that are beneficial to people."

USU recently repurposed its Center for Advanced Nutrition, which had been exploring "superfoods" under the auspices of Utah Science, Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative. Now called Applied Nutrition Research, the group is courting supplement makers, which represent a $6 billion industry in Utah.

"Part of our [USTAR] mission is economic development, and nutritional supplements is one of the biggest business sectors in the state," said Michael Lefevre, the nutrition scientist leading the team. "We see a long-term partnership."

Its first industry partner is USANA, which is funding the so-called AIR study, which stands for "Antioxidants and Inflammatory Response."

The USU team recruited 67 Cache Valley residents, all in good health between the ages of 45 and 80. They have undergone baseline testing for pulmonary function and inflammation, according to study coordinator Janet Bergeson.

This week, they begin an 18-week regimen featuring a packet of seven pills to be consumed twice a day. The control group gets inert pills, while the treatment group gets a seven-pill cocktail of USANA supplements that includes a variety of vitamins and minerals, as well as minute amounts of such substances as grape seed extract, olive extract, turmeric, choline and other bioflavonoids. This regimen would cost consumers about $90 a month. During the course of the study, participants will not know which group they are in, nor will the researchers.

They also are required to forego any other supplements and cease any regimen they were already using. That requirement proved to be an obstacle to recruiting because many candidates are attached to their supplements, Bergeson said.

Six times this winter they will repeat the testing for pulmonary function and inflammation — three times after an inversion peak and another three times after a storm blows out the inversion. Researchers are scanning for C-reactive protein in the blood and nitric oxide in the breath, both markers for inflammation.

Utah's wintertime inversions wreak havoc on the lungs of many people, particularly those with compromised immune systems, because the particulates lodge in tissues, triggering airway inflammation and impeding the flow of oxygen.

"Within a couple days you see a lot of people entering the hospital," Cuomo said. He believes the USANA supplement reduces inflammation by neutralizing some of the irritants, but this theory has yet to be tested in a clinical trial.

Positive or not, the results from the Utah State study will be published.

We don't have a personal stake in it," Lefevre said.

Supplements and pollution

Utah State University researchers this week are launching a study into whether multivitamin supplements produced by USANA Health Sciences can reduce inflammation associated with the state's bad wintertime air quality. The team recruited 67 Cache Valley residents to take a regimen of pills for 18 weeks and undergo regular testing.

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