Event Highlight: Genetics and Epigenetics - Beyond Nature vs. Nurture

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On Tuesday, December 11th, the Sustainable Path Foundation hosted a lively forum about epigenetics at Town Hall Seattle. The speakers were Dr. Michael Skinner and CEEH Investigator Dr. Kelly Edwards

Dr. Skinner directs a lab at Washington State University's Center for Reproductive Biology. His research is focused on investigating how different cell types communicate to regulate gonadal growth and differentiation. Work in his lab with rats has demonstrated that endocrine disrupting chemicals promote transgenerational epigenetic disease phenotypes through abnormal germ line programming during development of the gonads. 

Dr. Kelly Edwards is Associate Professor in the UW Dept of Bioethics and Humanities and core faculty in the Institute for Public Health Genetics. She is Co-Director of the Regulatory Support and Bioethics Core for the Institute for Translational Health Sciences and Director of this Center's Community Outreach and Ethics Core (COEC). Her research interests include integrating ethics into training programs, public conversations about science and public policy, ethics in research practice, and environmental justice. 

Dr. Skinner explained that DNA methylation and histone modification regulate gene expression. The methylation doesn't change the sequence of base pairs, but it does control how the genes work. The surprise is that methylation patterns are inherited. You inherited yours from your great-grandparents. Your maternal grandmother's dietary and chemical exposures when she was pregnant with your mother also exposed your mother and your mother's germ cells. Now here's the inheritance bit - you will pass the effect of what your grandmother was exposed to, to your children. Your grandmother's exposures influenced the methylation pattern of your DNA, and you pass that to the next generation. Dr. Skinner said something I had not heard before, that our epigenetics are determined from birth.

Dr. Edwards discussed the ethical challenges of epigenetics. She voiced concern that mothers and grandmothers will be blamed for exposures over which they had little or no control. Should women be held responsible for breathing the polluted air in their neighborhood, or using everyday plastics made with endocrine-disrupting BPA and phthalates? Dr. Edwards also suggested epigenetic research in humans will be challenging because it will require generous information sharing, lots of time from participants, and trust between participants and scientists.

The audience had lots of questions. If our epigenetics are determined from birth, is there anything we can do about the health risks we inherited? Or are epigenetics just another reason to give up on taking care of ourselves? Dr. Skinner emphasized that the epigenome - and the genome - we're born with only predisposes us to certain diseases. When the information in individual genomes and epigenomes can be analyzed and understood, medicine will have a powerful new tool for prevention. For example, those who are predisposed to certain diseases could be given preventive drugs and be advised to eat or to avoid certain foods.

Dr. Skinner commented that when he talks to audiences of geneticists, they always try to find a way for  genetics rather than epigenetics to explain his research findings.

On the bus ride home, I picked up the UW Alumni Magazine, Columns. I was surprised to find an article on DNA regulation - "Smart Junk. 'Stam Lab' Leads the Way in Solving DNA Puzzle." Center member Dr. John Stamatoyannopoulos, a researcher in Genome Sciences, is working with colleagues around the country on the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE), a federally-funded project to identify all the functional elements in the human genome. The article stated that what used to be called "junk DNA" contains DNA switches, instructions that switch genes on and off. The ENCODE project will help decipher gene-control pathways involved in disease. Someday soon doctors will be able to diagnose and treat cancer patients based on the cancer's genome.

So is DNA regulated by genetics or epigenetics? What if it's regulated by both? Something else was put forth at the forum: Science is a process of discovery. Scientists have to be open to making discoveries they didn't expect, discoveries that don't fit with their world view. To find the truth, we have to be open to new paradigms.




Event Highlight: Childhood Obesity and The Environment

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On Nov 29th, a panel of 7 experts led by National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Director Linda Birnbaum participated the first NIEHS virtual forum. The format was Q&A; participants submitted questions by email, Web, and Twitter. The topic was Child Obesity & the Environment.

Although body size is driven by energy balance, meaning nutrition and physical activity,  environmental exposures also seem to be a factor in the obesity epidemic, particularly at sensitive periods of development such as the prenatal period and early childhood. In obesity, adipocyte or fat cells seems to lose their normal controls. Obese people have more or larger fat cells.

Chemical exposures that have been associated with obesity include:
  • Maternal smoking during pregnancy
  • Phthalates
  • Bisphenol A (BPA)
  • Organotins, used as stabilizers for PolyVinylChloride (PCV)
  • Some pesticides
  • Air pollution from diesel fumes (PAHs) 
  • Indoor dust, especially for young children
Obesity puts people at greater risk for heart disease, stroke, Type 2 Diabetes and some types of cancer. Early exposures are associated with health outcomes later in life: Being undernourished during development is associated 50-60 years later with increased cancer, diabetes, and obesity.

Panelists discussed the food system, which has changed from a generation ago. We eat a different diet prepared in a different way. Portion sizes are larger and even published recipes contain more calories per serving. We make food more palatable - saltier, sweeter, and tastier - which tempts us to overeat.

Trends show some leveling off of obesity rates in the US, although rates are skyrocketing in many developing countries. Our experiences in utero, however, do not predestine us to be obese. There are many choices we can make in life that will help us get fit and stay healthy. 



Event Highlight: 2012 CEEH Annual Retreat

CEEH members learn about facility cores during the round table session at the retreat.

Our 2012 Annual Retreat for the Center for Ecogenetics & Environmental Health (CEEH) took place on Friday, October 26, 2012 at UW Medicine-South Lake Union. The theme for the day was Emerging Issues in Ecogenetics: Exposome Research. Dr. John Groopman from the Bloomberg School of Public Health and chair of the CEEH external Science Advisory Board started us off by putting current Exposome research in context. Dr. Martyn T. Smith from the Superfund Research Project, University of California-Berkeley delivered a rousing Keynote address which was co-sponsored by the UW Superfund Research Program. After the keynote, CEEH exposure science researchers Drs. Michael Yost, Catherine Karr and Sheela Sathyanarayana, provided updates on CEEH research projects related to exposure sciences.

Later that morning, in order to further acquaint our investigators with the various services provided by our facility cores, each core presented a five minute "lightning talk." The Cores include: Functional Genomics and Proteomics; Exposure Assessment, Biomarkers & Metabolomics; Clinical and Translational Services,  Bioinformatics and Biostatistics, Technology Access, and Community Outreach and Ethics.

After lunch, two 20-minute roundtable conversations gave CEEH members the opportunity to learn more about the Facility Cores most relevant to their research interests and needs.

The day wrapped up with our 9 current CEEH pilot project recipients taking part in a "Pilot Slam" (5 minutes, 3 slides each). The Annual Gathering concluded with the presentation of the second annual CEEH Awards. The 2012 CEEH Public Engagement Award went to Julie Richman Fox for her work with the DEEDS Project in South Seattle. The Innovations in Research Award went to Chad Weldy as first author on the paper "Heterozygosity in the glutathione synthesis gene Gclm increases sensitivity to diesel exhaust particulate induced lung inflammation in mice" (Inhalation Toxicology, October, 2011). 


Event Highlight: Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana on Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals


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CEEH Junior Investigator Sheela Sathyanarayana presented "Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals: Translation from Research to Prevention" at the monthly Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) webinar on October 24th. Dr. Sathyanarayana, a pediatrician, environmental health specialist, and Co-Director of the UW Northwest Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU), studies the effect of prenatal phthalate exposure on birth outcomes.

Children are the most vulnerable to adverse health effects from exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals such as phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA). Phthalates are anti-androgens; prenatal exposure is associated with abnormalities of the male reproductive tract. BPA is an estrogen; prenatal exposure in animals is associated with breast and prostate tumors, and with metabolic changes that lead to obesity.

We have known for several years that phthalates and BPA, both used in the manufacture of plastics, can leach from flexible tubing, vinyl flooring, squeezable plastic toys, vinyl gloves, and carbonless register receipts. But recent studies suggest the largest source of phthalate and BPA exposure in humans is through the food supply. Canned food, processed food, meat, and dairy products are exposed to BPA and phthalates during processing. Cans may be lined with plastic that contains BPA; dairy products have higher concentrations of phthalates than other foods. Dr. Sathyanarayana suggests that milk is exposed to phthalates as it passes through flexible tubing and plastic storage containers during processing. She believes most phthalate and BPA exposure in food occurs in processing and packaging, before consumers bring it home.

A CEEH pilot grant awarded to Dr. Sathyanarayana supported a study that compared two interventions aimed at reducing exposure to phthalates and BPA. Ten families with young children participated. The first intervention was to provide each family with a week’s diet of catered fresh local foods; the second intervention was to provide a fact sheet describing ways to avoid exposure to phthalates and BPA in the diet, and encouraging participants to follow these suggestions. Urine phthalate and BPA concentrations were measured before, during, and after the intervention. The results? There was no change in urinary phthalate or BPA in the group given the fact sheet. Unexpectedly, urinary concentration of phthalates and BPA increased (P<.001) in the group who ate a catered fresh diet. Further investigation of the ingredients in the catered food identified contamination of a spice used in the preparation of some of the meals. Webinar participants were curious about what the spice was. Dr. Sathyanarayana reported that spices in general contain the same concentrations of phthalates as other foods and opined that the contamination was a fluke. Then she revealed that the contaminated spice was brown coriander. She asserted that evidenced-based and practical interventions are needed to reduce exposure, and suggested that federal regulation may be the only way to control contamination of the food supply by phthalates and BPA. 

Sathyanarayana's CEEH pilot project led to the NIEHS-supported TIDES (The Infant Development and the Environment) Study, a 3-site, 5-year longitudinal study assessing phthalate exposure in pregnant women and the effect on their offspring.

PEHSU Factsheets provide information to health care providers and the public about ways to reduce exposure to phthalates and BPA.


Event Highlight: Public Health Café on Seafood Safety

Discussion time at the PH Café
Our October 9th Public Health Café about safe seafood drew an energetic group that pretty much packed the private dining room at Chaco Canyon Cafe in West Seattle. Those who attended included folks from the West Seattle community, UW, EPA, the Seattle/King County Public Health and WA State Department of Health. Half were attending their first Public Health Cafe.

UW toxicologist and risk assessment expert Elaine Faustman talked about Puget Sound seafood. She said we have about the best wild fish population in the world right here in the PNW, and we should  protect it, enjoy it, and eat it. She advocated for cleaning industrial contaminants from the water and sediment,  and for preventing new contamination.

As for choosing which seafood to eat, Elaine recommends fish and shellfish that are highest in omega-3 fatty acids; for example, salmon. Farmed fish with the same diet as wild fish will have the same nutrition, but some farmed fish are fed food contaminated with PCBs, and are contaminated as a result. High density pens of farmed fish may also be given antibiotics. Fish farming needs to be regulated more carefully. Elaine advocates eating wild, free-range fish because it's likely safer, and it's more appealing to eat fish that has lived wild and free, like it's more appealing to eat free-range chicken.

For guidance on choosing your seafood, check out the Healthy Fish Guide from the WA Dept of Health. Seafood is an excellent source of lean protein and healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and we should eat it, especially in the Puget Sound with its wide choice of fresh, local, wild seafood. The American Heart Association recommends that everyone eat at least 2 meals of seafood per week.

Alberto Rodriguez, Program Manager at the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, told us about the last 100 years on the Duwamish. The river was dredged and straightened and has been home to Seattle industry for a century. Now it's a Superfund site which means it's one of the most polluted places in the U.S. It's also a low-income and very diverse neighborhood whose residents include new immigrants, subsistence fishermen, and tribal members. The Muckleshoot and Suquamish Tribes have fishing rights on the river, and it is the home of the Duwamish Tribe.

Alberto told us the river looks clean to someone from the developing world. When it's part of your culture to catch your own dinner, other people are fishing, and you don't know whether to trust the government and its fish advisories, you may just ignore the fish advisory signs. It is important to communicate the dangers and, most importantly, to clean up the river so that fish-eating residents and tribal members have access to local seafood that's safe to eat.

Audience members reported they enjoyed this Public Health Cafe and the ambience at West Seattle's Chaco Canyon. As part of the evaluation at the end of the event, they were asked to write a short public health message that summarized what they were taking away from the event. Here's a sample of what they came up with:
  • Fish: Keep 'em Cleaner
  • The Signs Don't Lie. Fish Here and You Might Die.
  • Fish for Dinner? Make it a Winner!
  • Eat Fish, It's Wild.
  • On the Duwamish, Salmon are the Healthier Choice
The next Public Health Cafe will be on Tuesday, January 22 at Chaco Canyon Cafe, West Seattle. The topic is pesticides and food. 

Newsflash: CEEH Welcomes Three New Members

Three UW researchers have recently become members of the Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health. Please welcome:

J. Scott Meschke, JD, PhD, Associate Professor in the Dept of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS)  and Adjunct Associate Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering. Scott is an environmental and occupational health microbiologist who specializes in the fate, transport, detection and control of pathogens in air, water, food and surfaces. His research interests include developing methods to detect viruses and bacteria, foodborne pathogens, freshwater toxic cyanobacteria blooms, microbiological quality of produce, alternative methods of water and wastewater disinfection, biosafety, poliovirus eradication, and policy implications of infectious agents. He belongs to the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety & Health Center (PNASH) where he works on assessing job-related exposures for diarrheal illness in farmworker families. Scott earned his BS in Biology and his JD from the University of Kansas, an MS in Environmental Science at Indiana University, and PhD in Microbiology from the University of North Carolina.

Gretchen Onstad, PhD, Acting Assistant Professor in the DEOHS. Gretchen belongs to Chris Simpson's lab. Her expertise is analyzing drinking water disinfection byproducts, disinfection chemistry, and markers of human exposure to air pollution from pesticides, woodsmoke and diesel exhaust. She is specifically interested in preventing exposure to groundwater contaminants in rural populations that get their drinking water from household wells. Gretchen earned her BS in Chemistry from the UW and her PhD in Environmental Sciences and Engineering from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

William C. Parks, PhD, Professor in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine and Director of the Center for Lung Biology at UW-Medicine, South Lake Union. His lab focuses on 3 enzymes that are secreted in the epithelial matrix - MMP-7, MMP-10 and MMP-28 - and how they function in the innate immune system to defend against microorganisms, repair wounds, and recruit inflammatory cells. The goal of his lab's work is to understand the mechanism of individual MMP enzymes. Bill earned a BA in Biology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, and a PhD in Anatomy at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He did NIEHS Postdoctoral Fellowships at Michigan State in cancer biology and at Washington University in extracellular matrix and lung biology. He chairs the NIH Lung Injury, Repair, and Remodeling (LIRR) Study Section and serves on the Board of Trustees of the Puget Sound Blood Center.

Event Highlight: Duwamish River Bike Tour & Festival

Our Fearless Riders, © 2012 Jon Sharpe
Sixteen curious and cheerful bicyclists toured the South Park and Georgetown neighborhoods on Saturday morning under beautiful blue, sunny skies. The Duwamish River Bike Tour was a great success, and the ensuing Duwamish River Festival was festive indeed! There were wonderful dance troupes representing the diverse cultures who call the area home, free tamales and hot dogs for all, informative tables and exhibits, and fun activities like a bouncing structure and face-painting for the younger attendees. Mayor Mike McGinn even showed up and gave a short speech, saying that while as mayor he wasn't allowed to have a favorite neighborhood, he had to admit to having a special place in his heart for South Park. After spending the day getting to know the neighborhood, I could easily understand why.

CEEH researcher Wes Smith led the pre-festival bike tour, using a map that we created especially for the event (download the PDF here). Among the attendees were CEEH Community Advisory Board member Dennis Chao and CEEH Outreach Director Kelly Edwards. We stopped at various points of interest along the way to learn more about this unique part of Seattle where tribal, residential, and industrial history are so tightly intertwined. CEEH Outreach Manager, Marilyn Hair, and I staffed a table during the festival and enjoyed many great interactions with festival goers. We gave away lots of our new CEEH branded reusable grocery bags - and could have given away many more if we had them. Several people just walked up to the table and asked "so, what is ecogenetics?" - providing us with a great opening to discuss CEEH research and our core message that "ENVIRONMENT + GENES + CHOICES = HEALTH." For us outreach folks, it doesn't get much better than that! 

Visit our Flickr album to see photos from the day's festivities. 

Many thanks to the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition for organizing this great day!

Media Experts on How to Pitch Public Health


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Frame the message. Be clear, effective, short, and timely. Give them someone to care about - it’s the emotional threads that bind humanity.

Five journalists and communication professionals formed a panel at the NWCPHP Summer Institute for Public Health Practice on August 8th. They represented public television and radio (Joanne Silberner, Patricia Murphy, and Lee Hochberg), the local newspaper (Carol Ostrom), and an online health guide (Michael McCarthy). The audience got to peek behind the closed door of the newsroom. Guess what: It's rushed and understaffed. Reporters are stressed and cranky. Don't let that throw you off, they said, but if you want their attention, get right to the point. Pitch your story fast. Tell them why it's important right now. Give them access to a source. They also want a good quote. If they talk to a researcher, they want one who's animated and funny, especially on the radio.

If you have a big complex story, like the Affordable Care Act, break it down into tiny pieces. If it's evolving, show the process – the process is the story. It's a tradition in journalism to tell both sides of the story, which the journalists admitted is a problem when you're arguing that something is true, like climate change.

Public health and the media have different goals. The goal in public health is to get our message out, and to change behavior. The goal in media is to tell the news, and to be read. We also have the same goal: To help solve the problems, to make things better.

If people who are trying to get a message across understood the media better, the media panelists told us, they might have more success. 



Event Highlight: A Rare Film Experience


©2012 Jupiterimages
The Seattle Science Festival is this month. It’s the first science festival here, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair. A few nights ago I attended one of many events happening at the Seattle Center and around town. This one was sponsored by NWABR, the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research. It was a screening and panel discussion of the documentary, Rare.

Rare tells the story of the patient advocacy group for Hermansky-Pudlak Syndrome (HPS), a one-in-a-million recessive genetic disease that causes albinism, blindness, prolonged bleeding, inflammatory bowel disease, pulmonary fibrosis, and early death.

HPS mother Donna Appell is the heart of the story. When her baby was diagnosed with HPS, she couldn’t just wait and hope someone would think of a treatment. Donna searched for others who had HPS, and when she found some, she made a cold call to the NIH and recruited the help of Dr. William Gahl, Clinical Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

While Donna started the HPS Network, the NHGRI research team took care of the HPS patients. Soon the team identified a potential treatment. Now patients who had HPS were needed for a clinical trial. Donna kept searching, even traveling to a corner of Puerto Rico where the incidence of HPS is 1 in 1600.

The clinical trial began, and the film shows participants coming to the NIH for blood draws, pulmonary function tests, and MRIs. The study needed more participants and the HPS Network kept recruiting.

Meanwhile, HPS Network membership was growing. The annual meeting is larger every year. Researchers provide updates, and patients and families share their stories and coping strategies: Who got a lung transplant? What make-up covers dark circles under the eyes? They held a festive dance and talent show. 2013 will be the 20th annual HPS Network meeting.

Back to the clinical trial. Several years in, an interim look at the data found that the study was too small ever to show whether the medication works for HPS. Everyone was disappointed when the trial ended. One participant was surprised when she finds out on camera that she was taking the placebo.

At the next annual meeting, a participant in the trial presents Dr. Gahl with a quilt made by the HPS community. The doctor fights back tears as his patient tells him, “It doesn’t matter that the treatment didn’t work and the trial ended. What matters is that you helped us and we did it. Thank you. You are my hero.”

After the film, NWABR facilitated a discussion by a panel of experts including Malia Fullerton from UW School of Medicine, Dept. of Bioethics and Humanities; Benjamin Wilfond, Director of the Treuman Katz Center for Pediatric Bioethics, Seattle Children’s Hospital; Rare producer, Maren Grainer-Monsen, physician, Director of the Program of Bioethics and Film, Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics; and HPS patient Heather Kirkwood, Vice-President of the HPS Network who was featured in the documentary.

I already knew how clinical trials work: Participants have to meet the study criteria. Nobody knows whether they’re taking the treatment or the placebo. Clinical trials look for benefit to the whole treatment group, not for individual participants, the trial is for future patients and not likely to help participants.

But watching Rare brought these abstract truths to life. What a terrible disappointment for Donna Appell when her own daughter didn’t qualify for the study. We watched a participant monitor her symptoms, trying to guess whether she’s taking the treatment or the placebo. Researchers got to know the patients and worried about losing their objectivity. The clinical trial dragged on while precious time passed, patients got sicker, and some of them died. It was heartbreaking when, after all the effort to hold a clinical trial, it ended early. The film shows the toll of having a chronic disease, and the additional burden of having a rare disease.

The film will be shown in Seattle on KCTS, Channel 9, at 10pm on August 26th. There’s more information and a short film clip at www.rarefilm.org. Learn more about HPS at www.hpsnetwork.org/

                                                         

Public Health Café on Seafood Safety held in October, 2012

The Community Outreach & Ethics Core (COEC) at the Center has been thinking about issues around seafood safety. On Tues, October 9th, we're offering a Public Health Cafe on the topic: Seafood: It's Healthy, But Is it Safe to Eat?

Here's why seafood safety is an issue: Eating seafood is extremely healthy. Fish and shellfish contain protein and healthy unsaturated fat. It also has B-vitamins, Vitamin D, and essential trace minerals. The American Heart Association recommends eating 2 fish meals each week. Yet fish contain persistent bioaccumulative toxics (PBTs) such as PCBs and PAHs that can cause cancer; hormone disrupting BPA; mercury that can cause neurological damage; and lead that affects the nervous system, reproductive fitness, and fetal and child growth and development.

Seafood is a hot topic in Washington right now. The Dept of Ecology (DOE) is working to revise the Fish Consumption Rate (FCR). The FCR defines the amount of fish and seafood consumed per day by residents of Washington. Presently, the DOE has 2 fish consumption rates: 6.5 grams per day or one fish fillet per month is the FCR used in water quality standards. 54 grams per day or 7 fish meals per month is the FCR used for cleanup regulations. Many Washington residents eat more seafood than that, and some populations are especially high fish consumers. Surveys show that an average adult in the Asian and Pacific Islander population in Washington eats 117 grams per day or 15 fish meals per month; an average adult member of the Suquamish Tribe eats 214 grams or one fish meal every day. One in twenty Suquamish tribal members eats 489 grams or two fish meals every day.

DOE believes the fish consumption rates should protect all people in WA. This means the present FCRs of 6.5 grams for water quality and 54 grams for cleanup standards are too low. Stricter emissions and cleanup standards in Washington will make seafood safer to eat. But increasing the FCR is contentious because setting stricter standards requires less wastewater discharge and more water treatment. This is expensive for business and industry. DOE must recommend an FCR and the WA State Legislature must approve it.

Our speakers at the Public Health Cafe are UW professor Dr. Elaine Faustman, toxicologist in the School of Public Health, Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, and; Alberto Rodriguez, Program Manager with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition. Elaine's research interests include risk assessment, developmental toxicology, and molecular mechanisms of metals and pesticides. Elaine was an expert consultant on the United Nations World Health Organization 2011 Report on the Risks and Benefits of Fish Consumption. Alberto works with community groups and government agencies to coordinate clean up of the Duwamish River, a Superfund site and the most polluted waterway in Puget Sound.

We hope you will join us:

What: Public Health Cafe. Seafood: It's Healthy, But is it Safe to Eat?
When: Tuesday, October 9th, 6:30 - 8:00 pm
Where: Chaco Canyon Cafe,  3770 SW Alaska ( 2 blocks east of 38th) in West Seattle
Who: Free and open to all ages. No science background required.

Event Highlight: Latino Cancer Summit

A Wordle created from the panel discussion I participated in.
Neighborhoods in Los Angeles that are more than 15% Latino bear the burden of 84% of the toxic exposures in the city.  We know there are health disparities related to ethnic and socioeconomic differences within our communities.  Are our research and prevention efforts keeping up?  The answer at the Latino Cancer Summit, held in San Francisco July 23-25, 2012, is: we need to do more.  We need community partners, like Martha Sanchez (“the Latina Ellen Brockavich”) who has shut down a toxic industrial site that was right next to her children’s elementary school.  We need funding partners, like the NIEHS, who are committed to investing in equitable and effective research partnerships to impact public health.  We need other academic partners, like Beti Thompson, Rachel Ceballos, and Scott Adams, of the Center for Hispanic Health Promotion: Reducing Cancer Disparities at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.  The Summit leaders agreed that we need to work on a variety of fronts: campaigns for healthy foods and lifestyles, as well as more targeted gene-environment interaction studies in diverse populations.  Here at the UW Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health, we are eager to contribute to improved health for all within our diverse communities.

Duwamish River Bike Tour - Testing the Ride

© 2012 Terry Beck
In order to make sure the Duwamish River Bike Tour on August 25th is a great success, a few of us took a trial ride on Sunday. The weather was cool and cloudy, but it didn't rain on us - which passes for good weather in these parts. The ride was leisurely, fun, and offered fascinating views of this unique part of Seattle (thanks to Alberto from DRCC for his suggestions). We hope you'll view the full slideshow, be inspired, and decide to sign up for the ride. I can (almost) guarantee the weather will be warmer and sunnier given the August date. Jump to the full Slideshow on Flickr.

Event Highlight: Fresh Ideas from the PEPH Meeting

© 2012 Jupiterimages
I was fortunate to get to attend this year’s PEPH meeting in March and spent two days networking with an amazing group of professionals. PEPH (Partnerships for Environmental Public Health) is a network of scientists, community members, educators, health care providers, public health officials, and policy makers working together to advance the impact of environmental public health research. PEPH is a program of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Here are a few sparks of inspiration I brought home from the event:

  • Theater of the Oppressed expert John Sullivan of the University of Texas Medical Branch Center in Environmental Toxicology helped a group of 20 of us “non-actors” use our bodies to portray the health hazards of living in a neighborhood with trains and smokestacks. A dramatic way to engage folks in our work!
  • How can we effectively communicate our environmental public health message? Know our audience. Create a specific message. Build relationships in the community. Think strategically. Share materials. Take advantage of the web, emerging technologies, and social media (like our blog!) Use headlines, front-load the important stuff, use plain language. Everybody has information overload, so keep it short and sweet.
  • Build Capacity: Some researchers have room to grow when it comes to working with diverse communities; many IRBs need to develop a better understanding of how community-based participatory research (CBPR) is different from traditional research.
  • Many community partners are involved in PEPH, evidence that CBPR is important in NIEHS-funded research.
  • A few of the research topics we heard about at the meeting: Flame retardants, breast cancer, PCBs in the Arctic, GIS mapping, climate change, is Gulf seafood safe?

So glad to be a part of NIEHS’ commitment to outreach, education, community partnerships and environmental justice work!

                                                                                       -- Marilyn Hair

Focus on Ecogenetics: Men's Reproductive Health

A recent article published by a team of researchers led by CEEH investigator Sheela Sathyanarayana reports on a study looking at how genes and the environment interact to affect the development and physical characteristics of reproductive programming in male infants. In the article, A pilot study of the association between genetic polymorphisms involved in estrogen signaling and infant male genital phenotypes published in the May 14, 2012 issue of the Asian Journal of Andrology, Sathyanarayana and her team researched how genes and their alleles (different versions of the genes) are associated with particular phenotypes (observed physical characteristics) of infant male reproductive organs. Normal development of male reproductive systems in fetal stages depends on hormonal signaling and both genetic and environmental factors have been shown to affect this development. Birth defects in the male reproductive system are known to be risk factors for conditions such as testicular cancer and sperm abnormalities later in life. In the pilot study, the researchers found that polymorphisms in genes involved in estrogen signaling are associated with changes in genital measurements. In addition to this genotype/phenotype relationship, Sathyanarayana's team also explored how exposure to phthalates might further impact the gene/phenotype association to produce additional abnormalities in reproductive programming and phenotypes. Phthalates are a group of industrial chemicals used to make plastics more flexible. They are widely used in consumer products, such as toys, food packaging, shower curtains and personal care products. Although the researchers weren't able to find a statistically significant interaction between prenatal phthalate exposure, genetic variants and phenotypes, they attributed this to the relatively small sample size and emphasized that this is an important environmental exposure to consider in future studies. CEEH investigator Stephen Schwartz and CEEH researchers Fred Farin and Hui-Wen Wilkerson are co-authors on the paper.

- Sean Schmidt & Jon Sharpe

Newsflash: New Biomarker detects Low Levels of Domoic Acid

©2012 Jupiterimages
A recent PloS ONE article co-authored by several CEEH researchers (Richard Beyer, Theo Bammler, and Frederico Farin), is getting a lot of attention. In the article, A Novel Antibody-Based Biomarker for Chronic Algal Toxin Exposure and Sub-Acute Neurotoxicity, NOAA scientist Kathi Lefebvre, reports on the authors' discovery of a biomarker present in zebrafish and sea lions that indicates repeated exposure to low levels of domoic acid (DA), a known neurotoxin to marine mammals, seabirds, and humans at high concentrations and/or chronic low-level exposure. Exposure to DA is especially of concern in coastal and tribal communities where shellfish is a major food source. The discovery is important in detecting low levels of DA exposure but also suggests that it may be possible to develop tests for exposures to other environmental toxins as well.

Media referencing this publication:
- Sean Schmidt, Social Media Consultant