Multi-pronged effort to study the relationships among environmental pollutants, nutrition and disease

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 27, 2008) - The University of Kentucky has received a grant of more than $10 million for a multi-pronged effort to study the relationships among environmental pollutants, nutrition and disease.

The grant, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will support the efforts of more than 50 scientists and students representing more than 15 academic departments in the colleges of Agriculture, Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Medicine and Pharmacy.

UK's program, "Nutrition and Superfund Chemical Toxicity," was one of only two proposals selected for funding from among 18 competing grants submitted nationally to the NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences under its Superfund Basic Research Program (SBRP). UK joins 13 other universities with ongoing Superfund programs.

According to UK-SBRP program director Bernhard Hennig, "This prestigious grant places the University of Kentucky's SBRP in a Top 20 designation among current Superfund Basic Research Programs."

Superfund sites are defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as uncontrolled or abandoned places where hazardous waste is located. There are more than 500 such sites in Kentucky, a state in which rates of such chronic diseases as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and hypertension are well above national averages.

The grant will support five projects that address ongoing Superfund-related issues in the Commonwealth. Three of these projects focus specifically on biomedical issues while two non-biomedical projects tackle chemical detection and clean-up:

  • "Superfund Chemicals, Nutrition and Endothelial Cell Dysfunction," led by Hennig, of the College of Agriculture's Department of Animal and Food Sciences. This project will examine nutrients that may intervene in the way polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other Superfund pollutants cause cells to break down, thus contributing to atherosclerosis or "hardening of the arteries."
  • "Vascular Mechanisms of PCB-induced Brain Metastases," led by Michal Toborek in the College of Medicine's Molecular Neuroscience and Vascular Biology Laboratory. This project studies ways in which PCBs can stimulate the growth of cancerous tumors and the spread of cancers.
  • "The Impact of Obesity on PCB Toxicity," led by Lisa Cassis in the College of Medicine's Graduate Center for Nutritional Sciences. This project will study the ways that PCBs can promote obesity and such associated cardiovascular diseases as atherosclerosis and abdominal aortic aneurysms.
  • "Sensing Superfund Chemicals with Recombinant Systems," led by Sylvia Daunert in the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Chemistry. This project seeks to develop sensitive, portable and inexpensive molecular biosensors capable of rapidly identifying contaminated areas to speed decontamination efforts.
  • "Chloro-organic Degradation by Nanosized Metallic Systems and by Chelate-modified Hydroxyl Radical Reaction," led by Dibakar Bhattacharyya in the College of Engineering's Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering. This project pursues the use of nanoparticles and functionalized membranes to eliminate pollutants by helping convert them into biodegradable substances. The project also will explore the use of certain substances, including citric acid, iron, glucose and enzymes, to reduce pollutant toxicity.

In addition to funding the five research projects, the grant supports translation of research outcomes into real-world practical applications and policy recommendations through activities led by Lindell Ormsbee, director of the Kentucky Research Consortium for Energy and Environment, which currently pursues research activities at Kentucky's largest Superfund site, the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The UK-SBRP research translation efforts include support for community outreach activities to educate individuals about diet strategies that may help combat the effects of contaminants and improve overall health. Such projects are led by Lisa Gaetke of the College of Agriculture's Department of Nutrition and Food Science and include public meetings in communities directly affected by Superfund chemicals.

The grant also funds administration and research support, overseen by Hennig and Toborek, respectively, as well as interdisciplinary student researcher training, which is overseen by Leonidas Bachas of the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Chemistry.

The UK Superfund Basic Research Program also partners with the Kentucky Research Consortium for Energy and the Environment and the Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute.

© 2013 Tracy Farmer Institute for Sustainability and the Environment