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SPH Superfund Program Secures $11 Million from NIH

Award continues funding for critical hazardous waste research

| From BU Today | By Lisa Chedekel

An $11 million award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Superfund Research Program will allow researchers like Jennifer Schlezinger to continue work measuring exposure to toxic contaminants. Photos by Michael Saunders

Researcher Jennifer Schlezinger has spent the past decade in a School of Public Health lab examining how environmental contaminants impact B cells, which form in bone marrow and play a vital role in the human immune system.

Each step of her research has uncovered clues about the regulatory network that controls bone marrow physiology, while also raising new questions about the impact of certain contaminants on immune cell development and bone quality.

Schlezinger’s research, and that of dozens of other public health and biomedical researchers, has been done under the auspices of BU’s Superfund Research Program, one of the University’s longest-running federally funded programs. Based at SPH, its focus is on the results of exposure to hazardous substances.

Launched in 1987 and administered by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, the federal Superfund Research Program now funds research at 18 university centers across the United States.

BU’s program has enabled Schlezinger to keep breaking ground in a pursuit that ultimately could advance the scientific understanding of bone health and osteoporosis.

“I feel extremely fortunate to have the freedom to follow the science where it’s taken me,” says Schlezinger, an SPH associate professor of environmental health. “The research has evolved and opened up a new avenue: looking at how environmental contaminants impact bone quality, which is of huge interest in an aging population. With the Superfund program, I’m able to pursue it.”

Competition for Superfund dollars has become fierce in recent years, with some universities seeing their funding reduced or eliminated. The researchers involved in the BU program have published more than 300 papers probing the toxic effects of chemicals on cancer, reproduction, and development in humans and animals since 1995. But with the tightening of grant funding in recent years, SPH researchers had braced last year for the program grant to come to an end.

Instead, after a few tense months in limbo, SPH has again secured a Superfund award—a five-year, $11 million grant that will allow researchers to continue studies on the impact of chemical exposures on bone development and the health effects of prenatal exposure to contaminated drinking water, and to create methods for mapping toxic exposures over time and distance. Some of the funding will support studies on the effects of contaminants on marine fish.

Jennifer Schlezinger’s research, and that of dozens of other public health and biomedical researchers, has been done under the auspices of BU’s Superfund Research Program, one of the University’s longest-running federally funded programs.

While the dollar amount committed to SPH remains substantial—about $2.3 million a year—it has been shrinking, thus reducing the number of projects. Still, SPH researchers say, participation in the program has far-reaching benefits. In addition to research funding, the program has a focus on mentoring and training and on involving the community.

“We’re exceedingly pleased to be part of this highly competitive and visionary program,” says BU Superfund Research Program director David Ozonoff, an SPH professor of environmental health. “People really fight like crazy to get into this program, and we are very lucky to be continuing in it.”

BU’s Superfund research focuses on how hazardous substances interact with receptors in cells—through basic laboratory investigations, as well as large-scale epidemiologic studies of populations exposed through drinking water or by proximity to a contaminated Superfund site.

Among the most notable projects is an ongoing study of the health effects of exposure to water contaminated with the solvent tetrachloroethylene (PCE), once used in the plastic lining of water mains. Led by Ann Aschengrau, an SPH professor of epidemiology, it has found that PCE exposure increases the risks of bipolar disorder, breast and bladder cancer, birth defects, risky behavior, and vision problems. Another research team has developed and used cluster-detection models to examine cancer rates on Cape Cod through detailed computerized mapping.

The BU program also supports two research projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, one examining unusual dioxin resistance in fish in New Bedford Harbor.

“The benefit of the BU Superfund program shouldn’t be measured just in terms of the dollars it brings to SPH,” says David Sherr, an SPH professor of environmental health and deputy director of the BU Superfund program. “Securing a grant of this magnitude and prestige elevates our profile among peer institutions and within the NIH, which in turn makes it easier for researchers to secure additional funding, and for the school to attract better and better students and faculty.

“We’ve been able to mentor and advance some of our junior faculty members in a way we wouldn’t have been able to do without Superfund support,” Sherr notes. “This plays a big role in training the next generation of environmental scientists.” Schlezinger’s research grew out of work she had done with Sherr earlier in her career.

The goal of all of BU’s Superfund projects is understanding the implications to reproduction and development of exposure to hazardous substances. The program also aims to translate research into practice and to help shape public health policy.

Ozonoff says the dwindling funding for Superfund projects in the past few years “raises interesting questions about what’s happening, more broadly, to biomedical research in this country.” As the amount of money for research goes down, he says, scientists may be compelled to find less costly ways to conduct research projects—or to forego chasing the science that emerges from studies.

“We’re in a period of transition now,” he says, noting that the NIH budget is remaining flat in 2013. “What’s happening with the Superfund program is sort of the red flag for a rough transition period for biomedical research.”

But, he adds, “this is a terrific program, in terms of its goals and how it’s managed. We are very fortunate to still be in the game.”

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