Five early career researchers are the 2018 recipients of the NIEHS Outstanding New Environmental Scientist Award (ONES). The program supports innovative research on the relationship between exposure to environmental substances and human disease.
“We are pleased to announce the latest round of ONES awards to new investigators who hold the promise to become top-tier scientists in their respective research fields,” said Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT). “We are proud to welcome them into the cohort of ONES awardees, who are fast becoming leaders in the environmental health sciences.”
Mutation patterns might predict cancer
Many environmental toxins, including a class called aromatic amines, are known to trigger the formation of cancer-causing mutations. Identifying genomic biomarkers of toxin-induced cancer is the goal of ONES recipient Deyu Li, Ph.D., from the University of Rhode Island. His research will shed light on tumor development associated with mutations generated by two important aromatic amines.
“His work could produce patterns of DNA damage from specific chemicals,” said Les Reinlib, Ph.D., from DERT, who will oversee this grant. “That would provide a basis for screening and improved understanding of who among us is most sensitive, and what steps to take to preserve our health.”
Defense against arsenic-induced diabetes
Epidemiological evidence has revealed a link between diabetes and exposure to arsenic, which is a major contaminant of drinking water worldwide. This topic will be the focus of ONES recipient Robert Sargis, M.D., Ph.D., from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Sargis and his team will examine whether proteins that contain the essential element selenium protect against arsenic-induced metabolic dysfunction. Specifically, they will study whether so-called selenoproteins defend against arsenic-induced damage to pancreatic beta cells, which are defective or destroyed in individuals with diabetes.
“The findings could be used to identify vulnerable populations and to illuminate therapeutic approaches to address the deleterious impact of this widespread environmental contaminant,” Sargis said.
Racial disparities in breast cancer
The incidence of triple-negative breast cancer is two- to three-fold higher in African American women than in European American women. One possible explanation is that increased environmental exposures alter stem cell biology, thereby raising the risk in African Americans of this aggressive type of cancer.
This possibility will be examined by ONES recipient Justin Colacino, Ph.D., from the University of Michigan.
“This work has the potential to identify new prevention methods specific to the types of breast cancer that disproportionately affect African American women,” said NIEHS program officer Abee Boyles, Ph.D.
Pollution-induced infant respiratory disease
Prenatal exposure to particulate matter air pollution has been associated with increased lower respiratory tract infections in infants. The underlying mechanisms will be examined by ONES recipient Natalie Johnson, Ph.D., from Texas A&M University. Specifically, Johnson will study whether the severity of respiratory syncytial virus disease in offspring is increased by impaired antioxidant responses in pregnant mothers exposed to particulate matter.
“Findings from this work will shed light on how infants exposed to air pollution are at increased risk for infection,” Johnson said. “We aim to establish the proof-of-principle for targeting antioxidant response pathways in exposed mothers, to protect against childhood respiratory morbidity.”
Immune system role in ozone effects
Ozone causes lung injury, worsens chronic pulmonary diseases, and increases overall mortality. Robert Tighe, M.D., from Duke University, will study the role of immune molecules called chemokines in ozone-induced lung injury. His team will determine whether DNA variants that affect the chemokine receptor CXCR3 play a role in susceptibility to ozone-induced changes in airway inflammation and lung barrier function.
“If successful, the project will aid in developing potential intervention strategies to reduce environmental impacts of ozone in susceptible populations,” said Srikanth Nadadur, Ph.D., who will oversee the grant for DERT.
“Our hope is that successful findings from these two [Tighe’s and Johnson’s] projects on air pollution will aid deeper understanding on the issue of susceptibility, especially with respect to individuals with compromised immune function and its impacts on respiratory morbidity,” Nadadur added.
(Janelle Weaver, Ph.D., is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)