Penn Medicine Receives Superfund Research Program Award of $10 Million to Study the Adverse Health Effects and Remediation of Asbestos

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Media Contact:Karen Kreeger | Karen.kreeger@uphs.upenn.edu | 215-349-5658June 9, 2014

Researchers at the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology (CEET), Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, have been awarded a $10 million grant from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) over the next four years to study asbestos exposure pathways that lead to mesothelioma, the bioremediation of this hazardous material, and mechanisms that lead to asbestos-related diseases. One of these, mesothelioma, a rare cancer diagnosed in about 3,000 patients each year, is caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos. The disease is usually fatal with very poor prognosis once diagnosed.

The Penn Superfund Research and Training Program (SRP) Center, which was established by this grant, evolved as a direct consequence of concerns from the community living near the BioRit Asbestos Superfund site in Ambler, PA, about 20 miles north of Philadelphia. CEET is the academic home for the Penn Superfund Center.

NIEHS is a primary stakeholder in the SRP Center, with its sister Superfund programs at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

This award is the first NIEHS Superfund grant driven by problems identified in a community-academic partnership. CEET’s Community Outreach and Engagement Core (COEC) has facilitated bi-directional communication with the Ambler community for the last five years. The communities of West and South Ambler have long been active in studying the ramifications of their town’s long-closed asbestos factory. Residents in these communities remain at risk for environmental exposure and a potentially increased risk of developing mesothelioma.

Ian A. Blair, PhD, professor of Pharmacology, is the director of the Center. CEET director Trevor M. Penning, PhD, professor of Pharmacology is the deputy director of the Center. Christine Shwed is the Center’s administrative coordinator.  Researchers from the Abramson Cancer Center (ACC), the Penn School of Arts and Sciences, and Fox Chase Cancer Center are also lead investigators on the grant.

“The work of the Superfund Center is a model of how to bring precision medicine into the realm of environmental health by determining, on an individual basis, who has been exposed to a toxicant and whether they will develop disease,” says Penning.

“I am heartened that the NIEHS has chosen to fund this truly interdisciplinary center, which is uniquely qualified to address the concerns relating to asbestos exposure that have been identified by the Ambler community,” notes Blair.

“This new research and training award is designed to address important asbestos-related issues so that more informed risk and clean-up decisions can be made and shared,” said NIEHS Superfund research program director William Suk, PhD. “This funding of the Penn SRP Center has the potential to help communities affected by asbestos exposures locally and elsewhere.”

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