In late 2010, the University Research Corridor (URC) and the vice presidents of research from the three universities that make up the URC—Michigan State University (MSU), the University of Michigan (U-M), and Wayne State University (WSU)—assembled a round of seed funding to support collaborative early-stage research among URC faculty in the environmental health sciences.
Through a competitive review process, two projects were selected in 2011 to receive this funding. The proposals were evaluated on whether the projects were positioned to compete nationally for follow-on funding and could help influence outcomes of state and national environmental health policy decisions.
“The accomplishments made through this environmental health program have been truly remarkable—demonstrating the strength of the researchers and the significant contributions they are making both to science and the state of Michigan,” said Jeff Mason, Michigan’s University Research Corridor Executive Director. “This program further illustrates the role the URC is playing in fostering innovative research through collaborative teams, and we are proud to be a part of such efforts.”
A quick look at these two projects:
UCare Asthma Project: “The Effects of Air Pollution on Asthma in Vulnerable Subpopulations of Arab Americans”
UCare brought together research and community partners focused on enhancing the understanding of risk factors for and environmental triggers of asthma in vulnerable populations of younger and older Arab Americans in the metro-Detroit region.
This community-based study involved a close collaboration with key community partners including ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services), the largest Arab American human services nonprofit in the United States.
“This project was made possible by the unique funding mechanism offered through the URC, as well as the collaboration with ACCESS and the researchers at WSU, U-M, and MSU,” said Dr. Bengt Arnetz, MD, PhD, MPH, MScEpi, and lead UCare researcher.
The project combined the community-based research and human subjects (WSU) with analysis of air samples collected in the community at peak and non-peak asthma periods (U-M), and testing of suspected air pollutants identified in the air samples on asthma-prone mice (MSU).
“The success of this program can be attributed to Dr. Bengt Arnetz and our UCare Asthma team’s thorough and committed study of the patients,” said Dr. Hikmet Jamil, Professor, Dept. of Family Medicine, MSU Partnerships Office at YouthVille Detroit. “We followed a cohort of 146 candidates, four times throughout all the seasons, testing lung function and assessing the risk factors of homes (e.g. dust, mold, etc.) and the impact those factors have on the air quality and health of the patients.”
Arnetz explained that this interdisciplinary study involved both research in basic sciences, environmental sciences, and public health. Through the research, Arnetz and his team were able to demonstrate a clear association between air pollution and respiratory problems in vulnerable Arab Americans, especially older individuals. They further found that particles in the polluted air adversely affected the respiratory health of mice.
This integration of disciplines enabled the UCare team to develop a holistic portrait of the study population and those communities that can lead to more reliable findings. These findings will not only contribute to the field of environmental science, but will also inform community partners on how best to manage asthma among the community’s vulnerable members.
Throughout the project, faculty members were able to connect their work to related research projects, and were often able to use the UCare as a demonstration to secure external funding for larger projects. Most notably, the contribution of the UCare pilot study and the URC’s early stage seed funding to support the NIH-funded, NIEHS P30 Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors (CURES) at WSU. The $2.4 million grant supports WSU researchers, regional collaborators at Henry Ford Health System, U-M, MSU, and community partners, to study how exposures to stressors that are prevalent in the urban industrialized environment can impact human health in Detroit and beyond.
“The fun part of the research is partnering with, not only members of the urban community, but with researchers from other universities in our region,” said Dr. Melissa Runge-Morris, Director, WSU’s Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “Everyone brings their own perspective and own research expertise to the table. It’s like having a virtual university. If you collaborate effectively—and really UCare and the URC showed us the way—you can get so much more done and make such tremendous advances through this type of transdisciplinary collaboration. It goes beyond universities’ walls.”
Runge-Morris talked about how UCare provided the CURES team with a strong foundation in understanding the complex interactions between what people experience in the urban environment in terms of environmental exposure and human health outcomes. One of CURES’ main research areas of interest is in the role of how the environment impacts the human immune system, and they recognized that a big factor was the rising incidence of asthma in the city. With this, it was important for CURES to have the UCare support and their working group.
“We couldn’t have done it without the URC,” said Runge-Morris. “Universities used to only work alone and stay closed in. It just wasn’t as collaborative as it is now, but URC has paved the way for us to move forward. You want what they call a Dream Team—the best researchers you can get your hands on—and that’s what will happen through collaboration.
“Academics are going to a level that we haven’t seen before, in partnering with lay people and other universities to make things happen. This is only the beginning. Our whole goal is to do scientific research not just for industry colleagues but for our community. We want to understand the complexity of our environment in the interest of achieving of a healthy city.”
BLEEP: The Michigan Bloodspot Environmental Epidemiology Project
The Michigan Bloodspot Environmental Epidemiology Project (BLEEP) promotes transdisciplinary and translational research on predicting developmental outcomes and risk of disease based on prenatal environmental exposures. The project’s significance was rooted in its support for cutting-edge research in an area vastly understudied, while offering a potentially high-value contribution to environmental science in the use of neonatal bloodspots as a data source.
“By Michigan law, blood from every newborn is tested at the Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) for a variety of disorders including sickle cell anemia, PKU and cystic fibrosis,” said Nancy Christ, Michigan Neonatal Biobank board member and former director. “After the testing is finished, there is usually some blood leftover on the card, and it’s this leftover blood that’s being stored at the Michigan Neonatal Biobank.”
The Biobank is a collaboration of five institutions—Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH), WSU, MSU, U-M, and Van Andel Research Institute—and supports the MDCH in their efforts to develop their archive of dried blood spots into a unique resource for research. Biobanking is a labor intensive industry, and this collaboration allows for the blood samples collected from the new born screening program to be stored in a more controlled and appropriate environment.
“We have been taking steps to making these leftover blood samples more useful and more available for medical and public health research on childhood disorders, especially those that are important to the Michigan citizens,” said Christ.
Christ explained that the research had to be consistent with the values that are expressed by the BioTrust Community Values Advisory Board, which is made up of citizens across the state of Michigan. Some of the research that had been done or had been proposed looked at congenital heart defects, leukemia, SIDs, and autism.
BLEEP funded two cycles of pilot research that emphasized technological innovations, which, through the extraction of neonatal dried blood spots, could provide additional biological information. The overall research aimed to develop innovative, accurate, and reliable methods for assessing prenatal exposure to toxicants and epigenetic profiles using blood spots—ultimately using the least amount of genetic material needed to establish accurate results.
In conjunction with techniques that were developed with BLEEP funding, the NIH recently awarded a $4.8 million national research grant to investigate how exposure to a range of environmental factors in early development — from conception through early childhood — influences the health of children and adolescents. This seven-year project, known as the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) initiative, is composed of the three URC Michigan universities as well as the Henry Ford Health System and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS).
The WSU co-PI of ECHO is Professor Doug Ruden, whose team will work to determine whether environmental exposures, such as lead and organic pollutants, cause changes in the “epigenome” of the DNA in the children.
“My research team has studied lead toxicity in Detroit for over 10 years and last year published a research paper in Scientific Reports that showed that grandmaternal exposure to lead can alter the DNA in the grandchildren,” said Ruden. “This was the first demonstration of multi-generational effects of lead poisoning.”
At the close of the project, BLEEP teams shared their findings and related projects, some of which incorporated the projects and secured external funding, and discussed dissemination ideas and opportunities.
For additional information about the UCare Asthma Project and BLEEP visit https://urcmich.org/partners/.