In a Sept. 14 talk for the Keystone Science Seminar Series, Habibul Ahsan, M.D., described innovative research approaches, such as building strong networks in the community, to help tackle human health impacts from toxicants in areas where resources are low.
Ahsan’s work focuses primarily on the health effects of arsenic exposure in rural Bangladesh. He said that although studies in such areas can be challenging to conduct, there are also broad scientific opportunities.
HEALS study in Bangladesh
“Over 150 million people are exposed to arsenic around the world, with 50 million people exposed in our study region,” said Ahsan, who is with the University of Chicago. “Our research participants have given their time and opened their homes to us. Thanks to them, our findings can be readily incorporated in future prevention and mitigation measures for reducing arsenic-induced health effects in this population.”
In 2000, Ahsan and colleagues from the Columbia University Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center initiated the Health Effects of Arsenic Longitudinal Study (HEALS), a large long-term study in Araihazar, Bangladesh (see sidebar).
The researchers have expanded the number of participants and the scope of their research with funding through the SRP, and other NIEHS and National Institutes of Health grants. HEALS also provides participants in Bangladesh with basic medical care.
“HEALS is an important resource that has helped researchers ask a variety of research questions about how arsenic affects health,” said SRP Health Scientist Administrator Danielle Carlin, Ph.D., who hosted Ahsan’s talk. “Dr. Ahsan’s work has also provided unique insight into working with large cohorts in low resource settings.”
Efficient, resourceful study design
According to Ahsan, carrying out environmental health research in Araihazar has been difficult because of the lack of infrastructure, slow start-up processes, and political instability. Ahsan's team laid the foundation to make their work with HEALS participants as efficient as possible.
The researchers planned the study so that they could expand HEALS research questions for years to come. For example, when study participants were originally recruited, the team was looking primarily at chronic diseases and mortality in adults. However, because they focused on recruiting married couples, the researchers were able to expand their studies to include health outcomes in the couples’ children.
“Our team worked to overcome challenges and worked with the community to build a strong network and strong relationships,” Ahsan noted. “Today there’s no end to what we can do with HEALS. We have more data available to us now than we have scientists who can write papers on it.”
Moving forward, the team hopes to launch wireless sensors that communicate with mobile phone applications to study air pollution in the area.
HEALS has led to more than 200 publications linking arsenic exposure to health outcomes, such as overall mortality, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
(Adeline Lopez is a research and communication specialist for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)