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    February 2008  
 
 

Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health Receives $10.4 Million Grant from National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to Study Childhood Asthma

The Mailman School's Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCCEH) has received a $10.4 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to study environmental contributors to childhood asthma. The grant was awarded via a new NIEHS initiative called Disease Investigation through Specialized Clinically-Oriented Ventures in Environmental Research, or DISCOVER, that is designed to integrate environmental health research with patient and population-based studies.

CCCEH's DISCOVER grant was awarded because of groundbreaking research on the effects of early life exposure to common air pollutants the Center has performed since 1998. The new grant will advance the field of asthma research by deepening scientists' understanding of how prenatal and early postnatal exposure to widespread contaminants in the air alters lung development and the immune system to produce asthma. In four related studies, CCCEH scientists will combine molecular, epidemiologic, experimental and clinical approaches to better prevent childhood asthma and improve clinical treatment of the disease.

CCCEH is one of the first research centers in the nation to receive a DISCOVER grant. Launched by NIEHS in 2006, the DISCOVER program has awarded grants to only three institutions nationwide: CCCEH, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the University of Washington, Seattle.

"The DISCOVER centers will help to define the role of environmental agents in the initiation and progression of human disease and develop new ways to both prevent and treat disease," said Dennis Lang, PhD, interim director, NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, as he announced the new awards. "The potential impact of the research that these three centers will be conducting is enormous."

Since 1998, CCCEH has conducted significant research linking early exposure to ambient air pollution from sources such as diesel and gasoline powered vehicles and power plants to children's risk for asthma and asthma exacerbation. CCCEH's research in New York City and internationally in Poland and China finds that in utero and postnatal exposure to particulates and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from diesel exhaust and other urban combustion sources adversely affects children's neurocognitive development and increases potential cancer risk. The Center has also identified in utero exposure to residential pesticides as harmful to neurocognitive development.

CCCEH's scientific research is raising public awareness, improving children's environmental health, and influencing public policies. The Center's award-winning Healthy Home Healthy Child campaign, developed in collaboration with WE ACT for Environmental Justice, educates inner-city families about practical ways to reduce children's exposure to pollutants. The Center and WE ACT's joint translation of scientific research findings to improve environmental policies helped to pass legislation that lowered New York City's diesel exhaust emissions and neurotoxic pesticide exposure throughout public housing.

The four studies CCCEH will conduct with its DISCOVER funds are as follows:

  • Project 1, "Time Windows of Asthma Vulnerability," directed by CCCEH's lead asthma expert, Rachel Miller, MD, assistant professor of clinical Medicine, seeks to determine at what point in their development young inner-city children are most vulnerable to diesel-related and other urban air pollution. The results will serve to clarify the relationship between exposure to air pollution, obesity and an increase in allergy and asthma-related symptoms. Project 1 also will monitor the impact of recent policy changes on children's exposure to traffic-related air pollution to determine if there is a correlation between reduced urban air pollution and children's health. CCCEH anticipates that results from the study can be used to advise parents on reducing the risk of childhood asthma, and by physicians to clarify the role of pollutants in asthma.
     
  • Project 2, "New Air Sampling Technology," directed by Patrick L. Kinney, ScD, associate clinical professor of Environmental Health Sciences, will collect data from asthmatic and non-asthmatic children wearing a unique air sampling system in order to monitor how exposure to diesel exhaust can worsen asthma symptoms. Researchers expect the study will uncover usable health information for physicians, parents and communities by identifying specific air pollutants and sources as triggers of asthma.
     
  • Project 3, "Genes and Asthma," directed by Frederica Perera, DrPH, professor of Environmental Health Sciences and director of CCCHE, in collaboration with Dr. Shuk Mei Ho of the Environmental Health Sciences Laboratory at the University of Cincinnati, will determine whether biomarkers, such as environmentally-related changes in the expression of specific genes in utero, can predict childhood asthma. The goal is to develop clinically relevant biomarkers that would identify children at high risk of asthma. While previous studies conducted by the Center have shown that prenatal exposure to air pollutants can contribute to childhood asthma, exact mechanisms and early warning indicators have not been determined. This project aims to fill this gap in knowledge.
     
  • Project 4, "Air Pollution and Asthma Medicine," directed by Dr. Phillip H. Factor, an associate professor of Medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, will examine the effects of traffic-related pollutants on specific cell receptors. Previous research has shown certain air pollutants interfere with cell receptors, rendering some asthma medications useless and, in some cases, even worsening the asthmatic condition. This study seeks to ascertain the effect of air pollutants on cell receptors, which will assist in the development of asthma medications that can effectively alleviate asthma symptoms in young children.
     

"The CCCEH's primary goal has always been to improve the health and development of children through investigative research," said Dr. Perera, a pioneer in the field of molecular epidemiology. "This grant not only allows us to deepen our scientific understanding of the role of common urban air pollutants in childhood asthma, it also will help us give parents, physicians and communities the tools they need to make informed decisions to improve the health of their children."

An estimated 23.2 million Americans suffer from asthma, almost 9 million of whom are under the age of 18. As many as 25 percent of children in certain inner city communities have asthma. Asthma is the leading chronic illness affecting children in the United States and the leading cause of school absenteeism due to chronic illness. Health care costs associated with asthma are estimated at $14.5 billion a year. The number of deaths due to asthma, the number of Americans diagnosed with asthma, and the health care costs of asthma continue to increase each year.

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