NEWS | August 12, 2015

New UC Davis environmental research center links science with advocacy

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.)

A cross-disciplinary center focused on identifying connections between environmental toxins and disease has been established at UC Davis Health System with the ultimate goal of developing preventions and policies that protect communities from unhealthy exposures.

Irva Hertz-Picciotto Irva Hertz-Picciotto

The new UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center, launched with nearly $8 million in funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), was officially announced at a kickoff celebration this afternoon at UC Davis.

The five-year grant links UC Davis with a network of 21 federally funded core centers throughout the U.S. charged with tackling the nation’s toughest environmental health questions.

“The inclusion of UC Davis as a new core center brings their unique research facilities, broad collaborations and community-engagement to our network,” said Claudia Thompson, chief of the Population Health Branch at NIEHS. “This important addition will advance NIEHS’ goals of promoting state-of-the-art research and understanding how the environment affects people’s lives.”

Through the center, UC Davis experts in four schools — medicine, veterinary medicine, engineering, and agricultural and environmental sciences — will collaborate on studies of toxins that affect brain, lung, immune system, reproductive and metabolic health. Researchers will look at the biologic mechanisms and social conditions that allow damage to occur, along with interventions that prevent the exposures or their ability to harm the body.

San Joaquin Valley a special focus

Exposures of special interest, according to Irva Hertz-Picciotto, director of the center, include particles and compounds in ambient air, contaminants and pesticides in drinking water and food, and chemicals in household products or personal-care items. A significant focus will be the San Joaquin Valley.

“This region has some of the highest pollution levels, greatest ethnic diversity and worst health rankings in the country, and the new funding gives us the power to finally determine whether and how those three facts might be linked,” said Hertz-Picciotto, professor of epidemiology and environmental health and vice chair for research in the Department of Public Health Sciences.

A team of stakeholders representing community and government organizations will help define research priorities and ways to make the results relevant to affected populations. For example, center investigators and stakeholders can partner to identify potential actions, such as changes in policy, clinical practices or corporate choices, that could reduce pollutant levels and improve the health and quality of life for Valley residents.

Kent Pinkerton
Kent Pinkerton

“Conducting excellent science is an important part of the process, but equally important is translating research results into public health measures that address health disparities and environmental injustices,” Hertz-Picciotto said.

One of the major strengths of the UC Davis center is that it includes experts in both veterinary and human medicine, according to center co-director Kent Pinkerton, a specialist in lung biology. That combination gives human-health researchers unique access to laboratory resources and animal models for testing the health outcomes of toxic exposures. In his laboratory, Pinkerton assesses the influence of various air particulates on the onset and progress of pulmonary disease using animal models and laboratory equipment designed specifically to reproduce real-world environmental and air-quality conditions.

“Leveraging our laboratories and talent across population, basic and translational sciences uniquely positions us to provide innovative solutions to environmental problems — well beyond what typical ecology approaches offer,” said Pinkerton, a professor of anatomy, physiology and cell biology in the School of Veterinary Medicine and professor of pediatrics at the UC Davis School of Medicine.

Eight pilot projects

As their first initiative, center leaders have funded eight pilot projects that could provide the foundation for larger studies, especially those that involve measuring toxicants. The first projects will evaluate toxic chemicals in, for instance, breast milk, the gastrointestinal tract, sperm and immune cells.

“We were thrilled to have many highly qualified applicants in our very first call for projects,” said Laura Van Winkle, who heads the pilot project program and is an adjunct professor of anatomy, physiology and cell biology in the School of Veterinary Medicine. “The strong response speaks to the highly collaborative environment at UC Davis and the commitment of many investigators to find out how environmental factors influence health.”

Another focus will be training the next generation of environmental scientists. Through the UC Davis Clinical and Translational Science Center, early-career faculty from many disciplines will be linked with education opportunities, expert mentors and laboratory resources to advance their environmental research efforts.

“The funding gives us an opportunity to reinvigorate environmental health science,” Hertz-Picciotto said. “We are excited about the partnerships we can inspire and the potential for finding answers to the persistent environmental problems that are impacting the health of people in our region.”

More information about UC Davis Health System and its Department of Public Health Sciences is at http://www.healthsystem.ucdavis.edu/.

More information about UC Davis and its School of Veterinary Medicine, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and College of Engineering is at http://www.ucdavis.edu.