Environmental health grant to focus on genetic issues that influence arsenic exposure


Sunset at Coxs-Bazar beach (photo by Atiqur Rahman Khokon, Bogra, Bangladesh)

Brandon L. Pierce, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Departments of Public Health Sciences and Human Genetics at the University of Chicago, has been awarded an eight-year, $3.5 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health.

This is one of eight prestigious Revolutionizing Innovative, Visionary, Environmental health Research (RIVER) Outstanding Investigator Awards presented to distinguished environmental health scientists this week by NIEHS.

The awardees, selected for their demonstrated record of innovative and impactful research, receive up to eight years of grant funding and more flexibility in the scientific questions they are pursuing. Through RIVER, researchers will be able to explore novel directions in their research outlined by broadly stated goals rather than specific aims.

The award will enable Pierce to study variations in how people who are consistently exposed to food and water contaminated with arsenic respond to this highly toxic substance. His efforts will focus on how each study subject’s personal genetic susceptibilities can increase or reduce the effect of exposure on health, as well as the effect of arsenic exposure on dynamic features of the genome, such as the length of their telomeres – critical structures that protect the ends of chromosomes.


Rice threshing in Bangladesh (photo by Atiqur Rahman Khokon, Bogra, Bangladesh)

Much of the project will be conducted using data from Bangladesh, where an estimated 77 million people, nearly half of the country’s residents, live in areas where groundwater wells contain harmful amounts of arsenic.

Historically, contamination of surface water with bacteria in Bangladesh has caused a substantial amount of disease. To protect the people there, charity organizations installed nearly 10 million hand-pumped wells starting in the 1970s to provide clean water from deep underground.

By the 1990s, however, scientists found a new problem. Although the underground water was free from the bacterial contamination, it was tainted with arsenic. According to the World Health Organization, this was “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.”

Brandon Pierce, PhD, assistant professor of public health sciences and human genetics

“Arsenic is not just a problem for South Asia,” Pierce noted. About 13 million people in the United States rely on water from private wells that contain more arsenic than the legal limit. Exposure from certain foods is also an issue. But no comparable, large, prospective study has been done in this country.

“A major component of our research on arsenic exposure has focused on susceptibility to arsenic toxicity,” Pierce explained. “Genetic studies have discovered roles for inherited variation as well as dynamic features of the genome that influence susceptibility to arsenic toxicity and an individual’s response to exposure. We want to fully understand these gene-environment relationships and intend to create a large genomic data resource in the context of an epidemiological study of arsenic exposure in rural Bangladesh.”

Their first goal is to extend ongoing work on the genetics of inherited variants that influence arsenic metabolism and toxicity. Their second goal is to identify additional dynamic features of the genome that reflect biological response to arsenic or susceptibility to arsenic toxicity, by testing numerous genomic features for association with arsenic exposure and arsenical skin lesion status.


Village market (photo by Atiqur Rahman Khokon, Bogra, Bangladesh)

“If successful,” he added, “this project will provide novel biomarkers of susceptibility and toxicity as well as biomarkers of the effects of arsenic exposure. We hope this can help us identify subgroups of highly susceptible individuals, understand the mechanisms of both susceptibility and toxicity, and motivate those individuals most at risk to reduce their exposure.”

“We think this work has the potential to have substantial impact on both global and local environmental health,” he added.

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