Science & Research

Superfund research earns $10.8 million national grant

Four new projects will target human impacts, harms of past, future contaminants

Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences renewed funding for the Brown Superfund Research Program last month, granting $10.8 million to support four projects over the next five years, said Kim Boekelheide, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and director of the SRP. The four projects focus on different aspects of the theme “Toxicant Exposures in Rhode Island: Past, Present and Future,” he said.

The Superfund sites are areas that the government considers to be heavily polluted.

After closely missing renewal last year, the proposal for the SRP grant renewal earned the best score among a highly competitive field of applicants this year, said Robert Hurt, professor of engineering and SRP project leader.

“It was a huge relief,” said Shelby Wilson ’15, SRP research assistant, who started working for the program during the spring of her sophomore year. “A lot of the other centers that have received funding are much larger and already have a lot of money behind them,” she said.

For the University “to not only receive it, but to have that as a smaller university, is even more impressive,” Wilson added.

Though there are 12 Superfund sites in Rhode Island, the researchers’ work is applicable on a national and global scale, Boekelheide said. Researchers work with Superfund-related chemicals and contamination concerns to form new strategies for understanding the health impacts, he said, adding, “It’s a bigger thing than site-specific (research).”

One of the chemicals studied at these sites is trichloroethylene, a common industrial solvent used to degrease mechanical parts, which is known to cause cancer. Researchers associated with SRP are studying the chemical to examine its effect on male reproduction, said Eric Suuberg, professor of engineering and SRP project leader. Many of these chemicals were spilled or dumped after being heavily used during the Industrial Revolution, causing them to seep into the soil and create a location for the release of potentially harmful vapors into buildings and other heavily populated areas, he said.

Suuberg said he is collaborating with Boekelheide on the development of toxicant detection procedures. He is also working with Hurt to investigate the potential role of nanomaterials like graphene — an extremely strong carbon structure that is one atom thick — as part of a solution to vapor intrusion.

Hurt said he is researching potential risks of nanomaterials with Agnes Kane, chair of the pathology and laboratory medicine department and SRP project leader.

“A lot of (the research) focuses on legacy contaminants — past industrial pollutants that are still here in the soil and water. Our part, the other half of it, focuses on contaminants of the future,” Hurt said. To understand these nanomaterials, the researchers predict “what these materials may do and learn to commercialize them in a way that avoids these problems of the past,” he added.

Kane is also collaborating with Boekelheide on the identification of biomarkers and other ways to test for the effect of toxicants on humans, particularly in the male reproductive system, she said.

Findings from these research projects are shared with the NIEHS and other federal and state agencies, Kane said. The researchers also reach out to communities affected by these toxicants to share information and learn about their experiences, Boekelheide said.

Cooperation between these communications, researchers and the government “has allowed us to have multiple strategies for dealing with complex real-world environmental pollution here in Rhode Island,” Kane said.

Another one of the SRP’s core goals is to train and involve students and researchers at all levels, Boekelheide said.

Wilson said being part of the SRP team was an essential part of her undergraduate experience. “I had some good classes and wonderful instruction, but at the end of the day, I feel I really learned hard skills and how to do science by being in this lab,” she said.

The translational nature of the SRP is particularly appealing to the researchers, said Edward Dere, assistant professor of surgery, pathology and laboratory medicine and a bioinformatics researcher for the SRP.

“Every year, more and more chemicals are being used and introduced into the market, and we really need to be able to screen, characterize and assess the potential hazards of all these different compounds,” Dere said. “You can apply (our research) to environmental contaminants, pharmaceuticals. … It has tremendous benefits to society in general.”

David Klein, postdoctoral research fellow in pathology and laboratory medicine, also noted the wide applications of the SRP.

“I like knowing that it’s clinically relevant … and that it’s helping human health,” Klein said. “There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in understanding the basic biology (of the body) and how toxicants interact with it, and I feel like there’s a contribution I can make there.”