PHILADELPHIA (Legal Newsline) – Researchers with the University of Pennsylvania received a $10 million grant to study asbestos and how the toxic fiber leads to asbestos-related disease in response to America’s 10 Superfund sites.
The grant, which came from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), is expected to help researchers from the school’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology (CEET) at the Perelman School of Medicine to study asbestos, mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases over the next four years.
The grant established the Penn Superfund Research and Training Program Center as a result of concerns surrounding the BiRit Asbestos Superfund site in Ambler, Pa.
Dr. Ian Blair, professor of Pharmacology, was appointed as director of the Center, and CEET director Dr. Trevor Penning, professor of Pharmacology, was appointed deputy director of the Center.
Additional investigators on the grant include researchers from the Abramson Cancer Center, the Penn School of Arts and Sciences and Fox Chase Cancer Center.
According to a press release, CEET’s Community Outreach and Engagement Core has participated in bi-directional communication with the Ambler community for the last five years, but this award is the first NIEHS Superfund grant driven by problems identified in a community-academic partnership.
The Ambler community housed a now-closed asbestos factory since the late 1880s, catapulting several studies focusing on the medical and environmental consequences of the factory.
Because residents in the area face an increased risk of asbestos exposure and potential asbestos-related diseases, experts have tried to find answers to the toxic fiber and its impact on society.
With the help of the CEET’s Community Outreach and Engagement Core, the Pennsylvania Department of Health found that there has been an increased rate of mesothelioma cases in the area when compared to nearby zip codes. They further found that women have a greater risk than men.
The grant also establishes an interdisciplinary training program for students. It combines environmental sciences with environmental health sciences so doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows may receive hands-on education in these complementary disciplines.
Participation in Superfund webinars sponsored by NIEHS and internships in technology transfer at CTT and the EPA will be included as part of the training.
The environmental science projects focusing on the remediation of asbestos particles will be conducted by Drs. Jane Willenbring and Brenda Casper from the School of Arts and Sciences. The two will use mycrorrhiza fungi to break down asbestos fibers to a new non-toxic mineral form.
The studies regarding mobility and fate of asbestos particles in natural bodies of water, such as streams and rivers, will be conducted by Dr. Doug Jerolmack and Willenbring from the School of Arts and Sciences. They will monitor the movement of asbestos fibers through soil and water using translucent soil substitutes and a nanoaquarium in order to detect asbestos in the environment.
Fran Barg and Ted Emmett from Penn Medicine will conduct a sociological study to identify how asbestos exposure occurs and whether such findings could explain the cluster of asbestos-induced mesothelioma cases in Ambler, specifically in women.
Additionally, the biomedical branch of the grant will explore the genetics of mesothelioma susceptibility and plans to develop a blood test for early detection using a mouse model of mesothelioma.
Drs. Becky Simmons from Penn Medicine and Joseph Testa from Fox Chase will work with a tumor-suppressor knockout mouse to determine if susceptibility to mesothelioma is genetic.
The mouse model will also be used to test whether the remediated asbestos is less toxic.
Drs. Melpo Christofidou-Solomidou and Steve Albelda from Penn Medicine will study how to prevent mesothelioma in mice exposed to asbestos using an antioxidant in flaxseed. They will also use the flaxseed to treat the mice if they show early symptoms of mesothelioma.
Blair and Anil Vachani will develop a blood test to determine if subjects have been exposed to asbestos and whether they are at risk for developing mesothelioma by using blood samples from workers who were heavily exposed to asbestos.
While the projects focus primarily on Ambler, the center believes the findings could easily translate to the 15 additional Superfund asbestos sites in the country.
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