NIH Awards $4 Million to the University of Pennsylvania
School of Medicine to
Establish a Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology
First Environmental Health Sciences Center in the Commonwealth
(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,
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 triggers.”
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 Philadelphia.
“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
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, all-weather clothing.
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?”
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,’” notes
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