(Philadelphia, PA) - Over the next four years,
the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine
will receive $4.1 million from the National Institutes of Environmental
Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health
(NIH), to study the effects of environmental pollutants on human
health. The new Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology
(CEET) represents a partnership between research scientists and
communities in southeastern Pennsylvania. The CEET mission is to
understand the mechanism by which environmental exposures lead to
disease. Understanding these processes can lead to early diagnosis,
intervention, and prevention strategies. The goal will be to improve
environmental health and medicine in the region.
The Penn CEET is one of 22 designated Environmental Health Science
Centers in the United States and the first in Pennsylvania.
“We have the opportunity with the center to improve the environmental
health of all southeastern Pennsylvanians through research and outreach,”
says Trevor M. Penning, PhD, the Center’s
Director. Penning is also a Professor of Pharmacology, Biochemistry
and Biophysics, and OB/GYN.
An area of interest will be to study the role of environmental exposure
in lung disease, including cancer, mesothelioma, asthma, and emphysema.
Researchers will also focus on how certain environmental triggers
can disrupt the body’s endocrine (hormonal) and reproductive
systems, causing problems such as pre-term birth and birth defects.
A number of researchers are focusing on how oxidants and oxidizing
chemicals in our environment cause disease. Other investigators
will examine the interplay between genes and environmental exposure.
The CEET will use modern methods of genomics and proteomics to identify
early fingerprints of disease onset, so that we can detect problems
before they are too far advanced.
In addition to its research agenda, the center will have a major
community outreach and education component. Five communities, both
in Philadelphia and other counties, with a variety of environmental
concerns, are part of the center’s mission. The center’s
research agenda was established after extensive background work
to determine the most pressing environmental-related health problems
in southeastern Pennsylvania.
“In putting the center together, it would have been easy to
live in an ivory tower and just appeal to our research strengths,”
says Penning. “But we took the time to look at the incidence
of disease and health effects in this area and pinpoint those diseases
that are associated with environmental exposure or environmental
The five communities selected to be part of the effort are the Eastwick
neighborhood in southwest Philadelphia; the neighborhood of West
Philadelphia; Chester, in Delaware County; Pottstown, in Montgomery
County; and Palmerton, in Carbon County, about 70 miles north of
“The idea is to have two-way dialogues, to disseminate findings
of the center to community leaders by way of workshops and other
educational programs,” explains Penning. “We’re
also looking for community leaders to tell us their environmental
concerns. By working with communities, we can empower them with
the knowledge to make changes in environment and public health policy.”
Penning notes that Penn is an ideal place for an environmental health
sciences center because Pennsylvania is a highly polluted state:
“Pennsylvania is considered to be the fourth-most polluted
state in the country, by a series of different indices. We have
the second largest number of Superfund sites, 92 with 45 in southeastern
Pennsylvania alone, and the second largest amount of nuclear waste
in the country. We are in non-compliance with the Clean Air Act
and non-compliance with the Clean Water Act. When you put all these
facts together, we become highly ranked as one of the most polluted
At the same time, Pennsylvania has the second-highest incidence
of cases of cancer per 100,000 people. And southeastern Pennsylvania,
in particular, has high rates of asthma and adverse pregnancy outcomes,
such as low birthweight and birth defects, all problems that can
have an environmental connection.
Penn’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology will
not be housed in any one building. Rather, it will draw on the expertise
of 50 faculty members from 16 departments and five schools at the
university, including the law and business schools.
Edward A. Emmett, MD, Professor of Occupational Medicine,
is the center’s Deputy Director. Emmett’s research portfolio
includes the study of C8 (perfluorooctanoic acid), a chemical used
in the production of fluoropolymers, which are used to make non-stick
surfaces for cookware and in other products, such as breathable,
In its efforts to study the interplay between environmental pollutants
and genes, Penn researchers will look at questions such as what
makes one person susceptible to disease and another not. “If
two people breathe the same polluted air, why does one get asthma
and one does not?” asks Penning.
Research will also focus on identifying early markers of disease,
such as changes in genes and proteins that could signal a problem
down the road. For instance, markers could identify people susceptible
to asthma and to pinpoint early changes in lung tissue and cells
that may not yet manifest as full-blown disease.
Each of the five communities that will be part of the center’s
work has its own particular concerns. Philadelphia’s Eastwick
neighborhood, for instance, has a host of environmental worries
because of its close proximity to the Sunoco oil refinery, I-95,
I-76, and the airport. The surroundings of Pottstown include refining,
a nuclear power plant, and a large landfill; and Palmerton is located
in a “petrified forest,” caused by metal pollution from
old zinc smelting operations.
Lead exposure and the effects from past industrialization from mostly
closed down industries are big concerns in West Philadelphia. Chester
has a long list of environmental worries, including pollution from
waste incineration, oil refining, and I-95 traffic.
However, the scientific aspects of environmental exposure cannot
be looked at in isolation. There are political, social, and health-care
issues to also deal with; hence the involvement of other schools
at Penn. “The community outreach component of the center is
so important because we want to be able to empower local communities
to actually start thinking about ways in which they can talk to
their decision makers in terms of how to improve environmental policy
in their area,” says Penning. “We have to deal with
issues of environmental justice and health disparities. Many of
the people in the outreach communities that are environmentally
challenged are from lower socioeconomic status and do not have access
to vibrant healthcare. We also need to provide governmental decision
makers and health professionals with reliable information.
“The Center, with its research and outreach program, is anticipated
to improve the lives of southeastern Pennsylvanians and will be
an example of the PENN Compact at work, ‘to engage both locally
and globally’ and ‘to integrate knowledge across disciplines,’”
PENN Medicine is a $2.9 billion enterprise
dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical
research, and high-quality patient care. PENN Medicine consists
of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (founded in
1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of
Pennsylvania Health System.
Penn's School of Medicine is ranked #2 in the nation for receipt
of NIH research funds; and ranked #3 in the nation in U.S.News &
World Report's most recent ranking of top research-oriented medical
schools. Supporting 1,400 fulltime faculty and 700 students, the
School of Medicine is recognized worldwide for its superior education
and training of the next generation of physician-scientists and
leaders of academic medicine.
The University of Pennsylvania Health System includes three
hospitals [Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, which is
consistently ranked one of the nation's few "Honor Roll"
hospitals by U.S.News & World Report; Pennsylvania Hospital,
the nation's first hospital; and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center];
a faculty practice plan; a primary-care provider network; two multispecialty
satellite facilities; and home care and hospice.