$4 Million to Establish a Center in Environmental Toxicology
Over the next four years, Penn’s School of Medicine will receive $4.1 million from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to study the effects of environmental pollutants on human health. The new Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology (CEET) represents a partnership between research scientists and communities in southeastern Pennsylvania. The CEET mission is to understand the mechanism by which environmental exposures lead to disease. Understanding these processes can lead to early diagnosis, intervention, and prevention strategies. The goal will be to improve environmental health and medicine in the region.
The Penn CEET is one of 22 designated Environmental Health Science Centers in the U.S. and the first in Pennsylvania.
“We have the opportunity with the center to improve the environmental health of all southeastern Pennsylvanians through research and outreach,” says Dr. Trevor M. Penning, the Center’s Director. Dr. Penning is also a professor of pharmacology, biochemistry and biophysics, and OB/GYN.
An area of interest will be to study the role of environmental exposure in lung disease, including cancer, mesothelioma, asthma, and emphysema. Researchers will also focus on how certain environmental triggers can disrupt the body’s endocrine (hormonal) and reproductive systems, causing problems such as pre-term birth and birth defects. A number of researchers are focusing on how oxidants and oxidizing chemicals in our environment cause disease. Other investigators will examine the interplay between genes and environmental exposure. The CEET will use modern methods of genomics and proteomics to identify early fingerprints of disease onset, so that we can detect problems before they are too far advanced.
In addition to its research agenda, the center will have a major community outreach and education component. Five communities, both in Philadelphia and other counties, with a variety of environmental concerns, are part of the center’s mission. The center’s research agenda was established after extensive background work to determine the most pressing environmental-related health problems in southeastern Pennsylvania.
“In putting the center together, it would have been easy to live in an ivory tower and just appeal to our research strengths,” says Dr. Penning. “But we took the time to look at the incidence of disease and health effects in this area and pinpoint those diseases that are associated with environmental exposure or environmental triggers.”
The five communities selected to be part of the effort are the Eastwick neighborhood in southwest Philadelphia; the neighborhood of West Philadelphia; Chester, in Delaware County; Pottstown, in Montgomery County; and Palmerton, in Carbon County, about 70 miles north of Philadelphia.
“The idea is to have two-way dialogues, to disseminate findings of the center to community leaders by way of workshops and other educational programs,” explains Dr. Penning. “We’re also looking for community leaders to tell us their environmental concerns. By working with communities, we can empower them with the knowledge to make changes in environment and public health policy.”
Dr. Penning notes that Penn is an ideal place for an environmental health sciences center because Pennsylvania is a highly polluted state: “Pennsylvania is considered to be the fourth-most polluted state in the country, by a series of different indices. We have the second largest number of Superfund sites, 92 with 45 in southeastern Pennsylvania alone, and the second largest amount of nuclear waste in the country. We are in non-compliance with the Clean Air Act and non-compliance with the Clean Water Act. When you put all these facts together, we become highly ranked as one of the most polluted states.”
Pennsylvania has the second-highest incidence of cases of cancer per 100,000 people. And southeastern Pennsylvania has high rates of asthma and adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as low birthweight and birth defects, problems that can have an environmental connection.
Penn’s CEET will draw on the expertise of 50 faculty members from 16 departments and five schools at the university.
Dr. Edward A. Emmett, professor of occupational medicine, is the center’s Deputy Director. Dr. Emmett’s research portfolio includes the study of C8 (perfluorooctanoic acid), a chemical used in the production of fluoropolymers, which are used to make non-stick surfaces for cookware and in other products, such as breathable, all-weather clothing.
In its efforts to study the interplay between environmental pollutants and genes, Penn researchers will look at questions such as what makes one person susceptible to disease and another not. “If two people breathe the same polluted air, why does one get asthma and one does not?” asks Penning.
Research will also focus on identifying early markers of disease, such as changes in genes and proteins that could signal a problem down the road. For instance, markers could identify people susceptible to asthma and to pinpoint early changes in lung tissue and cells that may not yet manifest as full-blown disease.
Each of the five communities that will be part of the center’s work has its own particular concerns. Philadelphia’s Eastwick neighborhood, for instance, has a host of environmental worries because of its close proximity to the Sunoco oil refinery, I-95, I-76, and the airport. The surroundings of Pottstown include refining, a nuclear power plant, and a large landfill; and Palmerton is located in a “petrified forest,” caused by metal pollution from old zinc smelting operations.
Lead exposure and the effects from past industrialization from mostly closed down industries are big concerns in West Philadelphia. Chester has a long list of environmental worries, including pollution from waste incineration, oil refining, and I-95 traffic.
However, the scientific aspects of environmental exposure cannot be looked at in isolation. There are political, social, and health-care issues to also deal with; hence the involvement of other schools at Penn. “The community outreach component of the center is so important because we want to be able to empower local communities to actually start thinking about ways in which they can talk to their decision makers in terms of how to improve environmental policy in their area,” says Penning. “We have to deal with issues of environmental justice and health disparities. Many of the people in the outreach communities that are environmentally challenged are from lower socioeconomic status and do not have access to vibrant healthcare. We also need to provide governmental decision makers and health professionals with reliable information.
“The Center, with its research and outreach program, is anticipated to improve the lives of southeastern Pennsylvanians and will be an example of the PENN Compact at work, ‘to engage both locally and globally’ and ‘to integrate knowledge across disciplines,’” notes Penning.
Almanac, Vol. 53, No. 1, July 11, 2006