A view of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill from the International Space Station. UA professor Brian Mayer is studying the long-term social and environmental effects of the spill on residents of the Gulf Coast.
A view of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill from the International Space Station. UA professor Brian Mayer is studying the long-term social and environmental effects of the spill on residents of the Gulf Coast.

UA Hosts Meeting on Environmental Health

The annual National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences meeting is addressing challenges on a range of environmental health issues, from carcinogens to the long-term effects of the BP oil spill.
April 15, 2015
Researchers in the lab of Donna Zhang, professor of pharmacology and speaker at the NIEHS meeting, study environmental effects on the molecular mechanisms of liver cirrhosis. (Photo: Karin Lorentzen)
Researchers in the lab of Donna Zhang, professor of pharmacology and speaker at the NIEHS meeting, study environmental effects on the molecular mechanisms of liver cirrhosis. (Photo: Karin Lorentzen)

When people hear "environmental health," they tend to think about protecting plants and animals, or combating climate change. While these efforts undoubtedly are important, less often considered is how human health is impacted by these aspects of the environment. 

This week, the UA College of Pharmacy's Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center, or SWEHSC, is hosting the annual joint meeting of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences core centers and training directors at the Marriott University Park hotel. The NIEHS meeting is addressing a range of topics, including environmental effects on obesity, epigenetics, metabolic disease and cancer, and the social and legal implications of environmental health issues.

Approximately 185 national leaders in environmental health from the University of Arizona, Washington University in St. Louis, New York University and several other institutions are presenting the latest in environmental health sciences research.

"We focus on the effects of the environment on the health of the human being," said Marti Lindsey, director of the SWEHSC Community Outreach and Education Program. "Not only do we showcase the heavy science, we translate it into living-room language and make it accessible to people without advanced degrees."

The interplay between environmental conditions and human health can be complex. The human body is composed of approximately a million billion cells, each of which can be one of many hundreds of different cell types. This incredible diversity stems from a single DNA blueprint, and the internal and external mechanisms by which DNA can be induced to cause cellular changes in the organism. The study of these mechanisms, called epigenetics, has become a key area of interest to environmental health researchers.

"Over the past few years, environmental toxicologists have discovered that epigenetic control systems are an important target of natural and man-made environmental toxicants," said Bernard Futscher, professor in the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology and a speaker at the event. Earlier work by Futscher identified several environmental toxins that disrupt epigenetic systems, including arsenic, cadmium and benzopyrene, a cigarette combustion product. This disruption can result in a host of maladies to human cells, including pathologic cell immortality, a prerequisite for the formation of cancer.

Nathan Cherrington, professor and head of the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology, was to speak about environmental factors affecting obesity and metabolic disease. Cherrington studies xenobiotics, foreign chemical substances not normally found in the body such as drugs, and the mechanisms by which they can induce liver toxicity. Of particular interest to Cherrington is non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH, a severe liver disorder affecting 5 to 17 percent of Americans that can result in cirrhosis.

"Most people with NASH don't know they have it because a liver biopsy is needed for diagnosis," Cherrington said. "Since the disease alters the way we metabolize and eliminate drugs, which creates susceptibility to adverse drug reactions, these patients don't even know that they're at greater risk of toxicity."

Cherrington wants to understand how individual variations in metabolism result in xenobiotic-induced toxicity, and to apply this information to more targeted treatment plans.

"Identifying these patients and determining which drugs they will have problems with prior to initiating drug therapy can help us personalize our treatments and deliver the drug dosage that will be most effective for the patient," he said.

The NIEHS meeting also features a session titled "Social Sciences and Environmental Health," where speakers address the social and ethical issues raised by important environmental health problems such as toxic exposures, climate change and air pollution. 

James Hopkins, associate clinical professor in the Department of American Indian Studies and director of the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program, was to discuss the merits of taking a human rights-based approach to environmental sciences. Specifically, Hopkins will address an ongoing river basin transfer and its potentially devastating effects on the indigenous Rio Yaqui Pueblos.

"Hopkins is doing important work with the Pascua Yaqui tribe, specifically in terms of the social and legal ramifications of potential environmental hazards," Lindsey said.

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and caused the release of 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Five years later, researchers are still unclear on the extent of the spill's long-term social and environmental effects. Brian Mayer, associate professor in the Department of Sociology, was to present the findings of a study conducted with the University of Florida and the University of Maryland on local social vulnerability and community resilience in response to the spill.

"The research presented at the NIEHS meeting can be used to better the community," Lindsey said. "It's important for people to know about the researchers who dedicate their lives to understanding how human beings are impacted by environmental hazards and changes."

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