Pilot Project Recipients Year 7

Identifying the Specific Effects of Insecticides on Brain Development during Pregnancy

Study Title: Characterization of Insecticide-Induced Alteration of Mouse Neurodevelopment through RNA Sequencing

PI: W. Michael Caudle, School of Public Health, Environmental Health; Co-PI: Qiang Zhang, School of Public Health, Environmental Health

Insecticides are commonly used to eliminate insects in our homes and to prevent insects from damaging agricultural crops. While these chemicals are effective at controlling insects they can also be harmful to human health. Exposure of pregnant women to insecticides has been shown to contribute to alterations in brain development and function in their children, resulting in increased risk of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and learning and behavioral deficits. However, we do not fully understand how insecticides damage brain development. Our study will use mice to mimic human pregnancy and exposure to insecticides, allowing us to identify what specific parts of the brain are affected by the insecticides at different stages of brain development. By identifying what specific parts of the brain are damaged by insecticides, future studies may be able to pinpoint the environmental contributions of neurological disease (i.e., diseases of the brain).

How this study contributes to the exposome:  These findings will provide a clearer understanding of how exposure to insecticides during pregnancy may alter brain development and increase the risk for neurological deficits in children.

Dr. Michael Caudle is an Associate Research Professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health. Dr. Caudle’s research focuses on the effects exposure to environmental chemicals have on the infant, adolescent, and adult nervous systems. Dr. Qiang Zhang is an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health. Dr. Zhang’s research focuses on using computer simulations of biological systems to understand and predict the human health effects of environmental perturbations.

Does Herbicide Exposure Affect Sperm Cell Development?

Study Title: Impact of Atrazine exposure on paternal epigenetic inheritance

PI: Anthony Chan, Emory School of Medicine, Human Genetics, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Division of Neuropharmacology and Neurologic Diseases; Co-PIs: Victor Corces, Emory College, Biology; and Charles Easley, University of Georgia, Environmental Health Science

Atrazine (ATZ) is one of the most widely used herbicides. ATZ interferes with hormone function in people and animals, and is known to impact egg and sperm cells in rats. In studies using rats exposed to ATZ, effects were found in their offspring that had not been exposed to ATZ. This means the effects of ATZ exposure were passed from one generation to the next. ATZ changes how the rat’s genes were expressed (e.g., whether a gene is activated), and those same changes appear in future generations. This pilot study will develop a new method to investigate whether this same inheritance also happens in primates such as monkeys or humans. Using stem cells (cells with the potential to become any type of body tissue) from nonhuman primates, male sperm cells will be developed and then exposed to ATZ. If the ATZ leads to epigenetic changes (i.e., changes genes expression) in the sperm cells, these findings will show the first step in how environmental exposures get passed to future generations in nonhuman primates.

How this study contributes to the exposome: Environmental exposure is a well-known threat to human health, but its impact on future generations through parental transmission is largely unknown. This study will help develop a model approach to study paternal transmission of environmental exposures.

Dr. Anthony Chan is a Core Scientist at Yerkes National Primate Research Center and an Associate Professor at the Emory School of Medicine. Dr. Chan studies nonhuman primate models of human inherited diseases, including developing transgenic reporter cells for noninvasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and developing personal stem cells for cell therapy. 

Measuring Industrial Air Pollution and Health Effects with East Point Residents

Study Title: East Point Citizens Partner with Rollins in Piloting Systematic VOC Exposure Surveillance and Adverse Health Effects

Colleen McBride, School of Public Health, Behavioral Sciences and Health Education

East Point, GA is home to two industrial plants that manufacture paint and treated telephone poles. These industries emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), exposure to which can result in short- and long-term health effects. This potential exposure is of particular concern in an area like East Point, which is 74% African American and 33% of residents earn less than $25,000 a year and 29% do not have health insurance. Concerned residents partnered with the HERCULES Community Engagement Core to document the odors and total VOC levels they experience. This study builds on that partnership, engaging residents as citizen-scientists to measure specific VOCs and to document the actions taken to date to address the pollution. An Emory epidemiologist will also analyze community health concerns. The results of this multidisciplinary study may inform future citizen-science projects and can be used by residents to communicate with decision-makers about the exposures in their community.

How this study contributes to the exposome: This study analyzes a group of VOCs to create a profile of possible chemical exposures while exploring potentially associated health conditions. The results of this study reflect a part of this community’s external exposome.

The Atlanta Pollen Study: Estimating Pollen Exposure Across Atlanta

Study Title: Estimating Spatiotemporally Resolved Pollen Counts in Atlanta Using Low-Cost, Automated Sensors and Machine Learning

PI: Daniel Rochberg, School of Public Health, Environmental Health; Co-PI: Yang Liu, School of Public Health, Environmental Health

Even though pollen-related illnesses affect nearly 25 million Americans, the U.S. pollen monitoring network is insufficient to fully understand exposures at a local level.  All of Atlanta’s pollen data, for example, comes from one station based in Marietta. Our study aims to improve Atlanta’s pollen data by placing real-time sensors at multiple locations around the city and then developing a mathematical model to estimate pollen counts in specific locations. Our long-term goal is to significantly improve the practice of estimating pollen levels so that health officials and individuals can respond more effectively to high pollen levels and we can better understand whether pollen has different impacts across the region, especially in low-income communities.

How this study contributes to the exposome: Lessons learned from this study will advance exposome research by significantly improving how we monitor exposure to this major health risk. 

Partnering with Atlanta Gardeners to Measure Heavy Metal Soil Contamination and Exposure – Phase 2

Study Title: Community-Based Assessments of Soil Contamination and Childhood Exposure to Heavy Metals in Atlanta Urban Agriculture

PI: Eri Saikawa, Emory College, Environmental Sciences; Community Collaborators: Historic Westside Gardens ATL Inc., Environmental Protection Agency, and Georgia Department of Public Health 

Growing food in urban areas is quickly becoming more popular throughout the metro Atlanta area, with known benefits of increased fruit and vegetable consumption, improved weight control and increased food security. However, heavy metal soil contamination (such as lead) can be common in urban sites used for agriculture. Phase one of this study measured heavy metals in urban farms and gardens, which raised health concerns among community partners. Phase two of the study addresses these concerns by measuring heavy metals in residential soils and in children who live and play near them. In addition to the measures of metals in the soil and children, questionnaire data will be collected to determine how often the children come in contact with contaminated soil and to identify other potential ways the children could be exposed to metals (e.g., lead-based paint in the home). With this information, we will identify likely sources of exposure to heavy metals and work with our partners to develop intervention strategies to reduce exposure. This interdisciplinary study will connect environmental exposure science with community-driven research and health education. Project partners include the Historic Westside Gardens ATL Inc., Environmental Protection Agency Region IV, Georgia Department of Public Health, and community gardeners. Together, we hope to establish a long-term research collaboration with the urban agricultural community of Atlanta to better understand the exposures and health outcomes of these spaces while promoting the safe growth of urban agriculture in Atlanta.

How this study contributes to the exposome: Urban gardening includes social, psychological, and dietary benefits. However, urban soils are often contaminated with heavy metals which can lead to human exposure. The benefits of urban agriculture could outweigh the cost of soil contamination but potential risk to children should be assessed. This study will seek to understand exposure pathways for heavy metals to determine effective intervention strategies.

Dr. Eri Saikawa is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Emory College.  Dr. Saikawa conducts interdisciplinary research on the environment. Her primary research questions are related to the source and the magnitude of emissions linked to air pollution, ozone depletion, and global warming; the impacts of these emissions on humans; and policies to reduce emissions.

Founded in 2009, the mission of Historic Westside Gardens is to foster community self-determination through building equitable networks around healthy, fresh, and affordable food.

Collecting Fluid from the Skin to Monitor Exposures to Environmental Toxins

Study Title: Development of a Microneedle Device to Collect Interstitial Fluid from Skin for Time-Integrated Measurements of Phthalates and Other Compounds from the Exposome

Melissa Smarr, School of Public Health, Environmental Health, Emory University

Mark Prausnitz, School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, Georgia Tech

We are exposed to chemicals when we eat, drink, breathe, apply cosmetics and carry out other daily activities. Some of these chemicals can be detected in urine and blood, but others would be better detected in the fluid found in our tissues, which is called interstitial fluid. In this study, we will develop a method to draw small drops of interstitial fluid out of the skin using a device containing microscopic needles. We will test this new method to measure levels of diethyl phthalate, a common chemical found in commercial products that we commonly encounter in daily life. While exposure to phthalates are of interest, we believe this method of interstitial fluid collection can be useful to monitor exposure to a broad range of different chemical toxins.

How this study contributes to the exposome: The interstitial fluid collection method developed in this study should make this fluid available to researchers as a new indicator of chemical toxicants in the body.

Dr. Melissa Smarr is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Health, Rollins School of Public Health. Dr. Smarr’s research focuses on environmental influences on reproductive, prenatal, and children’s health (inter)nationally. Interested in identifying indicators of human exposures to chemicals in the body, Dr. Smarr also studies chemical levels found in urine, blood products (serum, plasma), seminal and vaginal fluids.

Dr. Mark Prausnitz is a Regents’ Professor in the School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at Georgia Tech. Dr. Prausnitz’s research focuses on developing new technologies to transport molecules like drugs and vaccines into the body for pharmaceutical treatment and to transport molecules like chemical toxins from environmental exposure  out of the body for analysis. In addition to the microneedle technology used in this study, Dr. Prausnitz also uses lasers, electric fields, ionic liquids, metal-organic frameworks and the microbiome as technologies to enhance molecular transport in the body.