May 2014 Newsletter Article

A Look Inside URC-Seeded Environmental Health Studies

For nearly three years, researchers at the three University Research Corridor (URC) universities have worked together to study asthma among Arab Americans in the Detroit area with the goal of making suggestions for proactive interventions to decrease the prevalence and incidence of asthma, a growing public health challenge.

The knowledge from the study by Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University is intended to determine the prevalence of asthma in the Arab American community and determine the risk factors and triggers for asthma in a vulnerable population of younger and older Arab Americans. The study also will look at the role that environmental triggers, such as airborne particles and pollutants, play in triggering asthma in the largely Yemen immigrant population in Dearborn’s south end, which has a significantly high level of air pollution.

The study is being done in close collaboration with the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS). Dr. Adnan Hammad, senior director of the ACCESS Community Health & Research Center, hired two Arab speaking interviewers to help the URC asthma research team with the project.

A team from ACCESS and Wayne State has been monitoring study participants who are in grades 5 through 8 or 55 to 75 years old. A team based at the University of Michigan collected air samples in areas included in the study, and a team from Michigan State exposed mice to specific components of pollutants in the collected air to see how the mice , bred for allergic sensitization, reacted to the pollutants.

When the three-year pilot study wraps up in winter 2015, the URC researchers hope to know which outdoor and indoor environmental triggers make asthma worse among Arab Americans in the metro Detroit area, and to determine the prevalence of and risk factors for asthma among younger and older Arab Americans. They hope their research will lead to new information that can help design effective community-based interventions for Arab Americans.

The three URC universities also work together on the Michigan Bloodspot Environmental Epidemiology Project, or BLEEP, now in its third year. The project’s purpose is to generate insights into adverse health effects that could be caused by prenatal exposure to various environmental factors. Five winning applicants this year will receive grants from a $125,000 pool, with each one-year grant not to exceed $25,000.

BLEEP draws on the collective multidisciplinary expertise and resources of investigators at all three URC universities to tap the Michigan Neonatal Biobank, an archive of dried blood spot cards. State law requires that a few drops of blood from every Michigan newborn be tested at the Michigan Department of Community Health’s State Public Health Laboratory to find babies with rare but serious disorders that require early treatment. Once the tests are completed, the archive of dried blood spots is available for approved research, with each assigned a unique code that assures anonymity for the sample and its donor.

The samples are stored in the Michigan Neonatal Biobank, a 501(c)3 non-profit charitable organization that stores and manages the samples in a temperature-controlled facility at Wayne State University’s Biobanking Center of Excellence in TechTown Detroit.

Wayne State also offers sample preparation, shipping, inventory and financial services for the Biobank, while its Center for Genomics Technologies provides quality control and DNA amplification services as needed. Michigan State and the University of Michigan provide technical assistance and expertise. Michigan State assists the Department of Community Health with linking biological materials to state databases and with de-identifying data, while the University of Michigan provides policy advice on the ethical, legal and social implications of the Biobank, among other roles.

Researchers at all three URC universities have been involved in studying samples from the Biobank. Michigan State University researchers have been using the bloodspots to do cerebral palsy research since 2005, while Wayne State researchers have conducted studies to identify factors that contribute to pediatric post-traumatic stress disorder and which factors, when tied to prenatal alcohol exposure, will lead to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. University of Michigan researchers have used the bloodspots to study the effect on hearing when prenatal exposure to heavy metals occurs.

The other partner in the Biobank, the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, provides the custom designed Biobank Interface software used to inventory and track the blood samples and provides advice regarding the Biobank storage facility.

Researchers use the bloodspots to look for important clues about the cause and cure for childhood disorders, not only in Michigan but worldwide. The bloodspots also can show if there was exposure to infections or toxic substances before birth. Such findings may lead to important new screening tests.