Globally, more than one quarter of all deaths and disease can be attributed to the environment. The University of Houston has joined with partners across the Texas A&M System and the Texas Medical Center to create the Center for Translational Environmental Health Research (CTEHR), a cross-institutional initiative to promote integrated environmental health research and translate research advances into practices that can improve human health.
The center, named by the National Institutes of Health as the newest national Center of Excellence in Environmental Health Science, will be led by Cheryl Lyn Walker of the Texas A&M Health Science Center Institute of Biosciences and Technology and College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.
“The Texas Medical Center is the most important health-related district in the world, but until now, no entity has existed to lead the world-class research performed here in the area of human environmental health,” said Dr. Brett P. Giroir, executive vice president and CEO of Texas A&M Health Science Center. “Through their combined efforts, CTEHR will harness the unparalleled scientific capabilities of this resource-rich location to promote new discoveries, and then translate these discoveries into preventions and treatments that could save millions of lives worldwide.”
In addition to UH, the initiative includes researchers from institutions across the Texas A&M System and Baylor College of Medicine.
Dr. Jan-Ake Gustafsson, director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at UH and a member of CTEHR, said he would bring his lab’s expertise in environmental toxicants and endocrine disrupters to bear on the new center’s mission of improving society’s understanding of environmental influences on human health.
“In particular, we will contribute our knowledge of those environmental factors such as BPA that influence the nuclear hormone receptors, an area of significant current public health concern,” Gustafsson said.
Center members are focused on translating research advances in environmental causes of disease to improve detection, prevention and management of diseases induced or worsened by environmental exposures.
“We are delighted to welcome the CTEHR team into the Environmental Health Sciences Core Center fold. Under the leadership of Dr. Walker, and with its discovery pipeline and state-of-the-art resources, we expect the center will build teams to address complex questions in health and of concern to communities both locally and nationally,” said Les Reinlib, director for the Environmental Health Sciences Core Centers Program at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a branch of the NIH. “We are confident that the new center will enhance research and outreach on the interaction of genes with common exposures that may alter our risk for disease.”
Through a novel bench-to-bedside-to-community approach, the center will accelerate the process of advancing basic scientific discoveries and translating them into treatment and prevention approaches for individuals at highest risk for environmental diseases, including vulnerable populations such as children and low socio-economic individuals.
“Understanding and mitigating environmental causes of diseases, such as asthma, heart disease, obesity and cancer, offers the greatest opportunity to decrease disease burden,” Walker said. “Unlike genetic causes of disease, environmental exposures are modifiable, and if detected early, present opportunities for intervention to prevent disease occurrence, and transmission to the next generation.”
CTEHR brings together environmental health scientists from a wide array of fields including cell and molecular biology, structural biology, biochemistry, genetics, pharmacology, physiology, toxicology, epidemiology, veterinary medicine, biostatistics and engineering. Working toward a common goal, the scientists will look at a number of environmental risk factors including: air quality, chemicals, radiation, bacteria and lifestyle choices, such as diet and exercise, to determine the link to disease in humans throughout the course of their lives.
“This is a great opportunity for major Texas institutions to address the environmental health issues of Texas,” said Melissa Bondy, professor in the National Cancer Institute-designated Dan L. Duncan Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine and associate director of the new center. “As one of the top 25 medical schools in the country and based in Houston with access to populations with health disparities, Baylor College of Medicine is uniquely positioned to translate environmental health research advances to the clinic and into the community.”
This translational effort will create bridges between center members, surrounding communities and other stakeholders to further scientific collaborations and dissemination of research results. Through fostered resources and expertise, the center will enable individuals, communities and policy makers to make informed decisions about environmental exposures and to mitigate environmental disease risks.