Long-Term Health Effects of Environmental Factors Is Focus of New $1.75-Million Study

Aug. 3, 2011
B. Paige Lawrence, Ph.D.

How exposure to chemicals and other environmental factors from the earliest months of life – even before we are born – affect our long-term health is the subject of a new five-year study by a scientist at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

B. Paige Lawrence, Ph.D., associate professor of Environmental Medicine and of Microbiology and Immunology, has been awarded $1.75 million by the National Institutes of Health to study how early exposure to factors in the environment affect our immune system.

While chemicals like solvents, pesticides or bisphenol A (BPA) quickly come to mind when discussing “environment exposures,” substances in the environment that affect our health come in many forms. Cigarette smoke is a gaseous brew of noxious substances that more than one in five people subject themselves and their loved ones to. The chemicals that line the insides of our food and beverage containers provide a whole set of exposures that most people rarely consider. Even the foods we eat release chemicals whose effects on health are being explored.

Lawrence is leading an effort to learn more about how environmental factors wield the influence they do over our immune system, an impact that sometimes lasts for decades after just a brief early exposure. For instance, scientists know that children who are born in heavily polluted areas are less able to shake respiratory infections and have a poorer response to vaccines for many years. Lawrence is trying to understand why, by working in the laboratory to re-create the effects in mice, where the processes can be studied more thoroughly.

“Although we are exposed daily to many different chemicals from our environment, we really don’t know much about how most of these substances affect the immune system,” said Lawrence. “Oftentimes, people assume they may be harmful, but truthfully, in a lot of cases we simply don’t know.”

“When people have concerns about the environment and ask my advice about how to best protect themselves, the first thing I say is that they should know where their food comes from. The major source of human exposure to many chemicals is through what we eat and drink. That’s the best starting point. I also recommend not microwaving food in plastic containers. But, ultimately, we need to conduct more research into these questions, and funding for biomedical research is crucial,” she added.

Lawrence is increasingly being tapped by colleagues around the nation to help fill this gap in our knowledge. Currently she is a member of a panel convened by the Institute of Medicine to evaluate possible adverse effects of several vaccines, including those that protect against flu, tetanus, chicken pox, measles and mumps. That panel is expected to issue its findings this fall. She also was recently named to the Innate Immunity and Inflammation Study Section of the National Institutes of Health, where she will help evaluate the scientific merit of proposals by other scientists to conduct studies related to immunity and inflammation.

In the new five-year study, Lawrence will look at how maternal exposure to a common pollutant, dioxin, alters the immune system of the offspring. Such chemicals oftentimes don’t directly damage our DNA; rather, they modify how the immune system responds to germs and other pathogens in some other way – which is what she and members of her research team intend to figure out.

She has already shown that pollutants like dioxin hinder the body’s ability to produce specific cells that fight respiratory infections, and that mice exposed to dioxin in the womb cannot fight off the flu as well as mice not exposed. Now she and her research team will try to track down the specific molecular changes involved in these differences. 

In other studies funded by the National Institutes of Health, Lawrence is looking at the impact of BPA on the immune system, studying whether exposure to the chemical early in life might make people more susceptible to conditions like asthma, flu, and inflammatory bowel disease later on. And with Michael O’Reilly, Ph.D., professor of Pediatrics and Environmental Medicine, she is studying how exposure to supplemental oxygen frequently given to premature babies affects the immune system. The treatment is crucial for many premature babies, but there is also growing evidence that this life-saving intervention might make those children more susceptible to infections, respiratory conditions, and the negative effects of second-hand smoke.