|BUSPH Superfund Research Program Secures $11 Million Grant from NIH |
In a BUSPH lab on the BU Medical Campus, researcher Jennifer Schlezinger has spent the past decade examining how environmental contaminants affect B cells, which form in bone marrow and play a vital role in the human immune system.
Each step of her research has uncovered clues about the regulatory network that controls bone marrow physiology, while also raising new questions about the impact of certain contaminants, including organotin compounds, on immune cell development and bone quality.
BU's Superfund Research Program â based at SPH and one of the university's longest-running federally funded programs â has helped her keep breaking ground in a pursuit that ultimately could advance the scientific understanding of bone health and osteoporosis.
"I feel extremely fortunate to have the freedom to follow the science where it's taken me," said Schlezinger, an associate professor of environmental health at BUSPH. "The research has evolved and opened up a new avenue: looking at how environmental contaminants impact bone quality, which is of huge interest in an aging population. With the Superfund program, I'm able to pursue it."
Since 1995, Schlezinger and dozens of public health and biomedical researchers involved in the Superfund Research Program have published more than 300 papers probing the toxic effects of chemicals on cancer, reproduction and development in humans and animals. But last year, with grant funding tightening in recent years, SPH researchers braced for the end of program grants.
Instead, after a few tense months in limbo, SPH has again secured a Superfund award: a five-year, $11 million grant that will allow researchers to continue studies on the impact of chemical exposures on bone development and the health effects of prenatal exposure to contaminated drinking water, and to create methods for mapping toxic exposures over time and distance. Some of the funding will support studies on the effects of contaminants on marine fish.
"We're exceedingly pleased to be part of this highly competitive and visionary program," said David Ozonoff, a professor of environmental health at SPH and program director of BU's Superfund Research Center." People really fight like crazy to get into this program, and we are very lucky to be continuing in it."
BU's Superfund research on how hazardous substances interact with receptors in cells is conducted through basic laboratory investigations, as well as large-scale epidemiologic studies of populations exposed through drinking water or by proximity to a contaminated Superfund site.
Among the most notable of the SPH projects is an ongoing study of the health effects of exposure to water contaminated with the solvent tetrachloroethylene (PCE), once used in the plastic lining of water mains. Led by epidemiologist Ann Aschengrau, the studies have found that PCE exposure increases the risks of bipolar disorder, breast and bladder cancer, birth defects, risky behavior and vision problems. Using detailed computer mapping, another team of researchers developed cluster-detection models to examine cancer rates on Cape Cod.
The BU program also supports two research projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, including one examining unusual dioxin resistance in fish in New Bedford Harbor.
Competition for Superfund dollars has become fierce in recent years, with some universities seeing funding reduced or eliminated. While the dollar amount committed to BUSPH remains substantial â about $2.3 million a year â it has been shrinking, requiring a reduction in the number of projects that can be pursued. Still, continuing participation in the program has far-reaching benefits, SPH researchers say. In addition to funding for research, the program has a focus on mentoring, training, and community involvement.
"The benefit of the BU Superfund program shouldn't be measured just in terms of the dollars it brings to SPH," said David Sherr, professor of environmental health and deputy director of the BU Superfund program. "Securing a grant of this magnitude and prestige elevates our profile among peer institutions and within the NIH (National Institutes of Health), which in turn makes it easier for researchers to secure additional funding, and for the school to attract better and better students and faculty."
Schlezinger's research grew out of work she had done with Sherr earlier in her career.
"We've been able to mentor and advance some of our junior faculty members in a way we wouldn't have been able to do without Superfund support," Sherr said. "This plays a big role in training the next generation of environmental scientists."
The Superfund Research Program, launched in 1987, is administered by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, an arm of the NIH. The program now funds research at 18 university centers across the U.S.
All of BU's Superfund projects share a goal of understanding the implications to reproduction and development from exposure to hazardous substances. The program also aims to translate research into practice and to help shape public health policy.
Ozonoff said the contraction of funding for Superfund projects in the last few years "raises interesting questions about what's happening, more broadly, to biomedical research in this country." As the amount of money for research shrinks, he said, scientists may be compelled to find less costly ways to conduct research projects -- or to forego chasing the science that emerges from studies.
"We're in a period of transition now," he said, noting that the NIH budget is remaining flat in 2013. "What's happening with the Superfund program is sort of the red flag for a rough transition period for biomedical research."
But he added, "This is a terrific program, in terms of its goals and how it's managed. We are very fortunate to still be in the game."
Contributed by Lisa Chedekel, firstname.lastname@example.org