$8 Million Boosts Environmental Health Sciences Center

Mar. 19, 2010
Effects of air pollution, cigarette smoke, even nanoparticles under scrutiny

Scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center who are exploring the health effects of environmental agents have received $8 million in new funding from the National Institutes of Health to continue their work for five more years.

The investigators who make up the Environmental Health Sciences Center study the effects on our bodies of a myriad of substances and compounds. There is no shortage of research topics. Mercury, lead, air pollutants, pesticides, plastics, copper, cigarette smoke, diesel fumes, and nanoparticles found in products like perfumes and sunscreens are some of the substances under scrutiny.

The latest funding means the center’s work protecting people from environmental threats will have been continuously funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for 40 years – from 1975, when the center was founded during President Ford’s administration, to 2015. It’s the longest-running research center funded by any NIH institute at the University.

Tom Gasiewicz, Ph.D.

The funding will be disbursed among nearly 50 different laboratories, a reflection of how widespread such studies are at the Medical Center, as well as the institution’s commitment to support such investigations. The research crosses more than a dozen departments and institutional centers and includes disciplines such as immunology, molecular biology, orthopaedics, pediatrics, and toxicology.

One key role for the center has been helping scientists, often young faculty members, investigate new areas to ask oftentimes radically new questions in areas where there is not yet enough data to warrant the commitment of millions of dollars. Through recent center pilot projects, scientists have identified an important molecular actor in the process that kills brain cells in patients with Parkinson’s disease, have found some evidence for the involvement of copper in Alzheimer’s disease, and have explored a linkage between lead levels and the development of arthritis. One project funded eight years ago involved studies of an ancient fish known as the “little skate.” With center funding, those studies have blossomed into new insights into how the human body handles cholesterol, opening new possibilities for lowering cholesterol levels and preventing heart disease in people.

During the last five years, the center funded 36 pilot projects, and the return on the investment has been substantial in terms of both information gathered as well as additional funding for continued research in important areas. These projects were initially funded with a total of $644,000; subsequently those efforts attracted $16.4 million in additional funding, a return of $25 for each $1 first invested by the center.

The possible role of copper and lead in the development of Alzheimer's disease is under study. Above: Amyloid in the wall of an arteriole in the brain of a patient.

Tom Gasiewicz, Ph.D., director of the center and professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Medicine, notes that the Rochester scientists do not focus solely on toxic effects that the pollutants or chemicals may have themselves; rather, the focus is most often on their possible role as contributors along with a variety of other broader processes, such as genetics or aging, that play a role in diseases like arthritis, osteoporosis, or Parkinson’s disease.

“Understanding how a chemical or substance interacts with other molecules in the body is crucial,” says Gasiewicz. “It’s about understanding environmental agents as modulators of disease processes. While genetics certainly plays a role in many diseases, there are many other contributors, including environmental factors, which may promote the occurrence or severity of these diseases.”

Gasiewicz’s own work has focused on how the body responds to the pollutant dioxin. Like so much of the research at the center, his work has led to unexpected places: how green tea might protect against cancer, how the body’s own defenses might act to protect against the harm of cigarette smoke, and how the body’s stem cells might be manipulated to improve the health of patients who receive a bone marrow transplant.

Rigorous testing of the brain is part of the Seychelles study looking at the effects of mercury.

The center originally was an outgrowth of Rochester research about a tragic case of mercury poisoning in Iraq in 1971 and 1972, when more than 450 people died from grain tainted with high levels of mercury. A team led by Thomas Clarkson, Ph.D., the first director of the center, investigated the causes, health effects, and potential therapeutic measures that could be used. The research continues to this day, with his colleagues in the midst of a 21-year (and continuing) study looking at the health of people in the Seychelles Islands whose mothers ate a lot of mercury-containing fish while pregnant.

Some of the threats under study today are the same as in 1975, when the center was founded. Lead continues to be a focus, including its effects on the bones – it likely plays a role in osteoporosis – and the brain, where it not only causes developmental disabilities but may play a role in the development of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Cadmium, dioxin, and asbestos are still under study, as is the role that pesticides may play in the development of some cases of Parkinson’s disease.

But there is a new generation of compounds under study as well. These include nano-particles found in substances like perfumes, shampoos, and sunscreens; a Rochester team has found that they can unexpectedly seep through the skin. Scientists are also studying common air pollutants and have developed new laboratory techniques to learn how these pollutants may actually cause or contribute to asthma. Furthermore, there is increased scrutiny on the abilities of tiny pollutants known as particulate matter and ultrafine particles to use our lungs as a gateway to the body. When we breathe, these tiny particles may evade the normal filtering ability of the lungs and enter our bodies, even winding up in the brain.

And then there are the plastics found in everything from water bottles to food containers. Some of the chemicals found in these plastics have the ability to mimic critical hormone signaling in our bodies. Scientists are in the midst of disentangling the consequences, especially when fetuses and young children are exposed.

Importantly, not everything studied turns out to be the threat that the public generally has assumed. For instance, in the world’s longest-running study of the health effects of mercury, Rochester scientists have found that small amounts of the substance in seafood may not pose much of a health risk under some circumstances. Rather, they’ve found that the health benefits of eating fish, especially the omega-3 fatty acids, actually seem to outweigh the risks from small amounts of compounds like mercury in the fish.

The center has also helped make possible additional research and public health efforts. These include the work performed in conjunction with the University’s EPA Particulate Matter Center, the Lung Biology and Disease Program, and the Center for Science Education and Outreach.

Through the science education program, which is part of a larger effort of community outreach, students and teachers from primary and high schools from around Rochester and its suburbs visit the Medical Center throughout the school year to learn about science, medicine, and careers in research. The outreach program has also been a driving force, in part through pilot project funds from the Environmental Health Sciences Center, in substantially decreasing the exposure of both children and adults to lead contamination in Rochester and surrounding areas.