UW News

January 10, 2008

UW selected to study environment, human disease link

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has selected the UW as one of the first three research centers in the United States to define the role of environmental agents in human disease. The three new research centers called DISCOVER (Disease Investigation through Specialized Clinically-Oriented Ventures in Environmental Research) will receive $6.8 million for the first year of funding to bridge the gap between basic research and clinical diseases caused by the environment.

“The DISCOVER centers will help to define the role of environmental agents in the initiation and progression of human disease and develop new ways to both prevent and treat disease,” said Dennis Lang, interim director, NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, as he announced the new awards. “The potential impact of the research that these three centers will be conducting is enormous.”

Dr. Joel Kaufman, UW professor of environmental and occupational health sciences, and colleagues will study the impact of traffic-related air pollution on cardiovascular disease. Specifically, the program will seek to increase understanding of biological pathways related to inflammation and vascular dysfunction from air pollutants and progression of cardiovascular disease. The ultimate translation of this program will potentially advance therapy and cardiovascular disease prevention through educational outreach opportunities to both the medical and public health communities.

The NIEHS launched the DISCOVER program in January 2006. The centers reflect an integrated research approach expected to advance our understanding of how the environment interacts with biological processes to either preserve health or cause disease by bringing together laboratory research and population based studies.

“The research being supported through this program is unique in that each DISCOVER center will support projects that will be patient-or clinically oriented, while also looking at the mechanisms of how certain environmental factors influence disease etiology, pathogenesis, susceptibility, progression, and prognosis,” said David Balshaw, one of the scientists at NIEHS who helped develop the program.

Balshaw points out that the new centers reflect the commitment of NIEHS to children’s health research. “Two of the DISCOVER centers are direct extensions of previously funded Centers for Children’s Environmental Health. The DISCOVER centers will focus their efforts on understanding the clinical impact of environmental exposures in children and extending that research to improve diagnosis and clinical intervention. We believe this work will also inform public policy and community education aimed at reducing the burden of children’s asthma,” Balshaw said.

The other centers are Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore; and Columbia University School of Public Health, New York. Johns Hopkins will form the Center for Childhood Asthma in the Urban Environment to examine how indoor and outdoor exposures to particulate matter and allergens may impact the airways of asthmatic children. Columbia’s researcher will study when and how common air pollutants from traffic and other combustion sources, including diesel exhaust, affect the lungs of children.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health, supports research to understand the effects of the environment on human health. For more information on environmental health topics, please visit our website at http://www.niehs.nih.gov/.