University Research Corridor studies impact of dangerous toxins

By Zach Bergson, Daily Staff Reporter
Published May 7, 2011

With the help of more than $750,000 in seed funding from the University Research Corridor, researchers are beginning to investigate the effects of environmental exposures on Michigan residents through two major research initiatives.

The URC — a research collaborative developed in 2006 between the University, Michigan State and Wayne State University — will use the money to fund both The Michigan Bloodspot Environmental Epidemiology Project, which examines newborn blood for exposures to natural and artificial compounds, and also a study involving the effects of air pollution on Dearborn’s Arab-American population.

Dr. Howard Hu, co-principle investigator of the Michigan Bloodspot Environmental Epidemiology Project and professor of environmental health sciences at the University, said the funding has allowed the project to develop a multidisciplinary team of researchers from all three institutions.

Hu said his team of chemists, physicians, molecular biologists and computational experts will be investigating the role that environmental exposures in early life play in the development of diseases and disorders like autism, Alzheimer’s and asthma.

“There is mounting evidence that the environmental exposures that matter are those that occur very early in life, for some of these conditions, and I mean during development in the womb,” he said.

Hu added that it is almost impossible to study the effects that early life environmental exposures have on the development of these diseases and disorders later in life. Instead, Hu said the team will use prenatal data collected by Michigan hospitals to investigate these effects.

“We will take advantage of the reality that every baby in the state from 1984 onwards had five spots of blood archived on the day they were born as well as emerging techniques for analyzing those bloodspots to estimate what the prenatal exposures were,” Hu said.

Hu said he believes the interaction between exposure to pollutants and a newly-discovered chemical structure called the epigenome — which surrounds DNA and is responsible for turning our genes on and off — may be the culprit in the development of many of these diseases.

“We can study the epigenome from bloodspots giving us now another tool for trying to figure out how early life chemical exposures may impact on adult disease by affecting the epigenome by turning genes on and off,” Hu said.

Many of these exposures include common metals like lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, manganese, as well as artificial chemicals like pesticides, Hu said.

“These are chemicals that come out of plastic-like compounds that have been widely used in baby bottles, soup cans, cosmetics and even medical equipment,” Hu said.

Jeff Mason, executive director of the URC, said the funds were awarded to the URC with the hope of increasing the amount of joint research between the three universities, and in turn leading to increased research funding for the state.

“(Funding) is going to create more collaboration with faculty from across the three campuses and in doing so will create more successful and competitive proposals that potentially could lead to more funding from the National Institute of Health and other federal sources that will bring dollars into the state.”