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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

May 2016

Yale environmental health program broadens focus

Vasili Vasiliou, Ph.D., shared his vision for the future of the Yale Department of Environmental Health Sciences.

Vasilis Vasiliou, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences in the Yale School of Public Health, shared his vision for the future of the department during a March 25 visit to NIEHS. His seminar was sponsored by Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program.

Vasiliou accepted leadership of the department in 2014 and has quickly expanded its mission, faculty expertise, and community involvement. In his talk, he described current research topics and plans for new areas of focus. “Since I came to Yale, I’ve been wanting to come to NIEHS. I want to get your advice on how to further strengthen my department,” he said.

In addition to presenting at the seminar, Vasiliou met with scientists across the institute, discussing opportunities for future collaborations and research partnerships.

Connecting the environment and health

The mission of the department, according to Vasiliou, is to advance scientific knowledge of connections between the environment and health, and to educate the next generation of public health researchers. The educational mission broadened recently when a second Ph.D. track, in toxicology, was added to the current program in environmental epidemiology.

Vasiliou is further diversifying the department’s research expertise by hiring new faculty and creating secondary appointments to his department, including scientists specializing in environmental studies, reproductive sciences, emergency medicine, and occupational health.

His own research (see text box) has centered on aldehyde dehydrogenases (ALDH), a group of enzymes that can increase to high levels after exposure to carcinogens, especially polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are common air pollutants.

Moving forward into new areas

Vasiliou’s vision for environmental health at Yale includes promoting collaboration with other faculty across Yale’s professional schools, as well as developing partnerships through outreach programs to create the programs described below.

  • Establishment of a Superfund Research Program Center — To support these efforts, Vasiliou has been talking with local health departments. “I want to get my department out to the community,” he said. “Superfund sites have been identified throughout the state of Connecticut, raising concerns about water quality for residences relying on private wells,” Vasiliou explained, stressing the need for the advances made at Yale to directly benefit the people of Connecticut and other states.
  • Center of excellence in environmental health sciences — “I want to use systems approaches,” he said, describing a focus on state-of-the-art techniques to study effects of environmental chemicals and pollutants on cells and tissues. “The outcomes we’re after include respiratory diseases, cancer, and metabolic disorders.”
  • Artificial turf study — Sen. Richard Bumenthal, J.D., D-Conn., held a March 23 press conference at Yale calling for full funding of the proposed federal budget for research into the effects of using recycled tires in crumb rubber, a material used in artificial turf. “We’re trying to see if players on artificial turf are exposed to chemicals being released by crumb rubber,” said Vasiliou.
  • Climate Change and Health Initiative — This new program, launched by the School of Public Health in 2016, will train the next generation of public health leaders to search for innovative solutions to the health threats associated with climate change.

A sampling of studies in the Vasiliou lab

The Vasiliou lab studies the functional roles of ALDHs and glutathione using a variety of animal models, mass spectrometry, and metabolomics. Additionally, scientists use in vivo confocal microscopy to research the role of proteins, including ALDHs, involved in responses to ultraviolet light exposure in the cornea.

One area of focus is ALDH1B1, an ALDH family member that is highly expressed in cancer tumors. In a 2015 paper, Vasiliou and colleagues reported that suppressing expression of the gene that codes for ALDH1B1 can block tumor formation in colon cancer.

Other studies address the novel role of a rare ALDH, known as ALDH16A1, in gout, and the role of glutathione as a signaling molecule in the development of the ocular surface, which includes the cornea and its major support tissue, the conjunctiva.

Citation: Singh S, Arcaroli J, Chen Y, Thompson DC, Messersmith W, Jimeno A, Vasiliou V. 2015. ALDH1B1 is crucial for colon tumorigenesis by modulating Wnt/beta-catenin, Notch and PI3K/Akt signaling pathways. PLoS One 10(5):e0121648.

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