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Your Environment. Your Health.

February 2017

Superfund Research Program Science Digest
Balancing Scientific Excellence with Research Relevance

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Features

Prevention and Intervention: SRP Strategies to Prevent and Reduce Exposures and Disease

SRP researchers are taking a variety of approaches to reduce exposures to hazardous substances and improve public health through prevention and intervention strategies. These approaches include developing technologies to reduce exposures, using nutrition to reduce the negative health effects of chemicals, and performing basic biological research that may lead to potential clinical treatments.

Technologies to Reduce Exposures

electrochemical
Alshawabkeh and his team created a pilot-scale electrochemical setup to test the influence of different parameters on removal of TCE from groundwater.
(Photo courtesy of Ljiljana Rajic)

SRP researchers are developing remediation tools to reduce hazardous substances from water and soil.

  • At Northeastern University, Akram Alshawabkeh, Ph.D., and his team are developing a solar-powered sustainable remediation system to remove trichloroethylene (TCE), a widespread carcinogen, in groundwater.
  • Researchers at Duke University, led by Mark Weisner, Ph.D., are investigating ways to use naturally occurring cellulose nanomaterials for water treatment technologies, which are much cheaper and less energy-intensive than many other current technologies.
  • Researchers led by Mark Christenson at Airlift Environmental, an SRP-funded small business, are improving the treatment of contaminated aquifers by developing direct-push permanganate candles that are placed in wells to reduce trichloroethylene concentrations.
  • At the University of Iowa, researchers led by Jerald Schnoor, Ph.D., have found that switchgrass, a plant native to central North America, can effectively remove polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from contaminated soil. PCBs are a family of hazardous chemical compounds once widely used in industrial applications that still persist in the environment.
synchrotron x-ray fluorescence technology
Guerinot and her research team use synchrotron x-ray fluorescence technology to study how different metals move through plants.
(Photo courtesy of Dartmouth College)

SRP scientists are also finding ways to prevent contaminants from traveling from soil into the food we eat.

  • Mary Lou Guerinot, Ph.D., is performing research on arsenic and cadmium uptake into rice and other edible plants and working to find certain strains of rice that restrict arsenic accumulation.
  • Research led by Julian Schroeder, Ph.D., at the University of California (UC) San Diego SRP Center is revealing how toxic metals accumulate in plants. They have discovered important properties about the ways plants grow and upload nutrients. Schroeder has also partnered with a local community to test edible and non-edible plant tissues in an urban community garden located on a Brownfields site, where there are concerns about the presence of hazardous substances.

Nutrition Strategies to Mitigate Effects

It is difficult to clean up environmental pollutants and nearly impossible to remove all chemicals that may be harmful to human health. So, some SRP researchers also strive to reduce the negative health impacts of exposure, including using nutrition to protect against chemical toxicity and associated diseases.

University of Kentucky SRP program
University of Kentucky SRP program staff spread the word about good nutrition to mitigate health effects during outreach events, such as this one near Dayhoit, Kentucky, the location of one of the state's Superfund sites.
(Photo courtesy of Lisa Gaetke)

Researchers at the University of Kentucky SRP Center are examining the potential roles for nutritional components to minimize the negative human health effects related to chlorinated organic compounds, such as PCBs. Bernhard Hennig, Ph.D., and colleagues have discovered that nutrition may modify or ameliorate the toxicity of Superfund chemicals. This has led to further studies on the implications of nutrition and environmental contaminants for human health. They have found that a diet with a high ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids or diets supplemented with green tea can reduce cell and tissue damage and reduce oxidative stress caused by PCBs and other pollutants. They also discovered that adults with high levels of PCBs in their bodies, which may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, can reduce that risk by eating more fruits and vegetables.

Researchers led by Mary Gamble, Ph.D., at the Columbia University SRP Center have built upon findings from a study in Araihazar, Bangladesh to investigate how nutrition influences arsenic metabolism and toxicity. Her research team originally documented abnormally high levels of homocysteine in the blood caused by deficiencies in folic acid. These conditions were also associated with a reduced capacity to remove arsenic from the body. Based on these results, they conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled trial and found that folic acid supplementation lowers blood arsenic levels, which may potentially prevent arsenic toxicity. More recently, Gamble and colleagues have reported further evidence that folic acid supplementation may be an effective intervention for arsenic-exposed populations.

Serendipitous Discoveries Point to Potential Treatments

researchers
UC Davis SRP researchers, led by Hammock, left, look over the distribution of an enzyme in a rodent heart muscle cell to understand how blocking sEH may prevent cardiac fibrosis.
(Photo courtesy of UC Regents)

Basic research to understand the effects of environmental chemicals can also lead to important discoveries that have implications for the development of clinical treatments.

As part of his SRP research at UC Davis, Bruce Hammock discovered an enzyme in the body now known as soluble epoxide hydrolase (sEH). To study the role of sEH to detoxify environmental chemicals, his team created potent inhibitors to investigate factors that control enzyme activity. They found that these reduced inflammation and inflammatory pain in mouse and rat models. In subsequent studies, the researchers determined the molecular mechanism underlying the beneficial effects of inhibiting sEH after heart attacks, opening the door for a new therapy to stop cardiac fibrosis. They also found that sEH plays a key role in the inflammation associated with depression and is a potential target for treatment. Hammock and his team are even collaborating with veterinarians to test sEH inhibitors to treat laminitis, a painful and deadly disease in horses.

During chronic liver damage
During chronic liver damage, the hybrid hepatocytes, in green, expand, exhibiting unmatched regenerative capacity in the liver.
(Photo courtesy of UC San Diego)

At the UC San Diego SRP Center, researchers led by Michael Karin, Ph.D., are investigating the effects of Superfund toxicants on liver disease. Through their SRP research, Karin and his team discovered a population of liver cells that are better at regenerating liver tissue than ordinary liver cells, or hepatocytes. The study is the first to identify these so-called "hybrid hepatocytes" and show that they are able to regenerate liver tissue without giving rise to cancer. These hybrid hepatocytes hold promise in preventing fatal liver failure by cell transplantation. Karin and his team have also recently discovered that high levels of the protein p62 in human liver samples are strongly associated with cancer recurrence and reduced patient survival. As a result, they are working to better understand how small molecules that interfere with p62 may be useful for preventing the progression of chronic liver disease to liver cancer.

For more information about these projects and others, visit the SRP Currently Funded Grants page.