New Center to Tackle Environmental Causes of Disease, Gaps in Environmental Health Policy

Article excerpt

Duke University's new Center for Comparative Biology of Vulnerable Populations will explore the link between exposure to pollutants and disease. The center will seek to explain why certain people develop disease when challenged with environmental agents, while others remain healthy, the researchers said.

According to Duke officials, the center could explore the health implications of many major North Carolina problems--including exposure to air pollution, animal waste from commercial operations, pesticides, and the molds and bacteria that result from floods after disasters such as hurricanes.

"Our center will seek to understand how biological, physiological, and social aspects of vulnerability alter the effect of environmental toxins on human health," said David A. Schwartz, M.D., chief of pulmonary and critical-care medicine at Duke University Medical Center and director of the new center.

Launched with $2.6 million from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the center will provide training and laboratory facilities for researchers trying to unravel the way interactions between genes and the environment lead to disease. Facilities will include a DNA analysis facility capable of screening the activity of thousands of genes and an inhalation toxicology facility for controlled laboratory testing of environmental exposures.

The multidisciplinary center will span the campus and the medical center, including members from the School of Medicine, the Nicholas School for the Environment and Earth Sciences, the School of Law, and Arts & Sciences.

The university has committed an additional $1 million to support the center and will provide approximately 19,000 square feet of laboratory and office space, according to Schwartz. The institution also expects to recruit seven to 10 new faculty members in environmental health, he said.

The center team will apply its findings both to promote medical advancements and to encourage shifts in environmental policy, Schwartz said. The center also will include a strong community outreach effort, which will offer education to North Carolina schools and other groups about environmental health. …