Environmental Causes of Disease, Gaps in Environmental Health Policy

Duke University Medical Center
Thursday, 8 July 2004

Duke University's new Center for Comparative Biology of Vulnerable Populations will explore the link between exposure to pollutants and how it can lead to disease. The center will seek to explain why certain people develop disease when challenged with environmental agents, while others remain healthy, the researchers said.

According to Duke officials, the center could explore the health implications of many major North Carolina problems -- including exposure to air pollution, animal waste from commercial operations, pesticides, and the molds and bacteria that result from floods after such disasters as hurricanes.

"Our center will seek to understand how biological, physiological and social aspects of vulnerability alter the effect of environmental toxins on human health," said David A. Schwartz, M.D., chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Duke University Medical Center and director of the new center.

Launched with $2.6 million from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the center will provide training and laboratory facilities for unraveling how interactions between genes and the environment lead to disease. Facilities will include a DNA analytical facility capable of screening the activity of thousands of genes and an inhalation toxicology facility for controlled laboratory testing of environmental exposures.

The multidisciplinary center will span both the campus and medical center, including members from the School of Medicine, the Nicholas School for the Environment and Earth Sciences, the School of Law and Arts & Sciences.

The university has committed an additional $1 million to support the center and will provide approximately 19,000 square feet of laboratory and office space, according to Schwartz. The institution also expects to recruit seven to 10 new faculty in environmental health, he said.

The center team will apply its findings both to medical advancements and to encourage shifts in environmental policy, Schwartz said. The center also will include a strong community outreach effort, which will offer education to North Carolina schools and other groups about environmental health, he added. In turn, environmental issues of public concern to North Carolina residents will serve to guide new lines of research.

"North Carolina is affected by a number of environmental hazards resulting from air pollution as well as pesticide use and animal confinement across the state," Schwartz said. "Flooding in some areas can also lead to air contamination from molds and bacteria. Faculty in this highly integrated environmental health center will concentrate on identifying how such environmental exposures impact human health, and what we can do to improve health by understanding that process," added Schwartz.

The center will concentrate on neurological and pulmonary diseases arising from such hazards, said Schwartz. The neurological disease studies, led by Marcy Speer, Ph.D., associate professor of medical genetics, will focus on neurodevelopmental diseases such as neural tube defects and autism. The pulmonary disease component, concentrating on such disorders as asthma, will be led by Jo Rae Wright, Ph.D., professor of cell biology. The center's environmental health policy arm will focus on how to improve regulatory strategies by incorporating new scientific understanding of populations vulnerable to disease into policy decisions.

The center's research will focus particularly on children's health, he said. Children are particularly vulnerable to environmental hazards because they are growing rapidly, quite commonly put things in their mouths and spend more time in contact with the ground , Schwartz explained.

"Recent advances in genetics have given us an unparalleled understanding of how our genes interact with the environment around us," Schwartz said. "However, to fully apply this science to preserving human health, we must understand the complex ways in which humans actually interact with their environment. This center aims to bridge that gap in scientific understanding to improve public health and effect needed policy change."

Schwartz will report to R. Sanders Williams, M.D., dean of the Duke School of Medicine and James Siedow, Ph.D., vice provost for research at Duke University.

For more information, or to contact Duke University Medical Center, see their website at: www.mc.duke.edu

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