NIH taps Chicago universities for center on environmental health

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The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health, has awarded ~$4 million over four years to an equal partnership of the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) to establish an environmental health sciences center in the Chicago area.

The center, called the ChicAgo Center for Health and EnvironmenT (CACHET), will study and ultimately reduce environmental health related disparities among residents of Chicago.

Although the life-expectancy gap between ethnic and racial group has narrowed in the U.S., in Chicago, the gap between the life expectancy of blacks and whites remains one of the largest in the nation.

“Our two institutions, with overlapping strengths, will work closely together to mitigate disparities in environmental health,” said center co-director Habibul Ahsan, MD, Louis Block Professor of public health sciences, medicine and human genetics at UChicago Medicine, and associate director of the University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Research Center.

“We will focus on the biological, social and economic connections between urban environmental exposures and human disease,” he added, “and apply the knowledge we gain to the reduction of health inequities.”

The Center is the first of its kind for Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. It will focus first on understanding and reducing the dramatic racial and ethnic health disparities in the South and West sides of Chicago, where environmental pollutants are most prevalent.

“The Chicago region faces disproportionate rates of diabetes, respiratory illnesses, heart disease and cancer as well as HIV/AIDS and homicide,” said center co-director Gail S. Prins, PhD, the Michael Reese Professor of Urology and professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at UIC.

“Although studies have identified multiple contributors to these inequities, the determinants of racial and ethnic health disparities remain poorly understood,” she said, “which makes successful intervention much more challenging.”

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CACHET researchers, drawn from multiple departments from both universities, will analyze the health effects on adults and children from the area to substances such as air pollution, water quality, exposure to industrial chemicals and other contaminants. The center will also work to identify critical windows of susceptibility, study combined exposures, and develop new ways to measure each person’s environmental exposures over time.

CACHET is organized into five multidisciplinary focus groups:

  • Air, Water & Soil Pollutants will address diseases related to poor air, soil and/or water quality;
  • Biomarkers of Exposure, Susceptibility and Risk will elucidate how environmental exposures confer risk for disease due to individual genetic and epigenetic differences;
  • Environmental Carcinogenesis will study specific mechanisms of environmental effectors that promote cancer;
  • Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases will determine how environmental exposures act at windows of susceptibility to drive disequilibrium in endocrine and metabolic homeostasis; and
  • Economic and Social Determinants of Environmental Effects and Policy will examine key factors that could mitigate environmental exposures and inform policy.

CACHET provides a formal mechanism enabling investigators from both institutions to interact frequently and undertake innovative and impactful projects together. This includes shared research cores, such as an integrated health sciences core, a community outreach and engagement core, a biomarkers core, and a pilot projects and career development core.

“We have already observed cross-fertilization of ideas and expect that CACHET will create a powerful synergy and greatly enhance environmental health science research portfolio of both institutions,” Ahsan said.

The NIEHS Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) Core Centers Program facilitates these collaborations by funding institutional infrastructure to support scientific equipment, facilities, and other resources that can be shared among environmental health researchers.

“As a NIEHS-designated center, we are better equipped to pursue shared research questions and identify emerging issues that advance understanding about how pollutants and other environmental factors affect human biology and may lead to disease,” Prins said.

CACHET is one of more than 20 centers across the country. It is the only center operated jointly and equally by two institutions.

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