All HERCULES Pilot Projects address the concept of the exposome by examining how health is influenced by a complex mix of exposures (e.g., diet, chemicals, social stressors) across the lifespan.
The Effect of Secondhand Smoke Exposure On the Development of the Brain and Behavior During Infancy
Study Title: Perinatal Secondhand Smoke Exposures and Infant Cognitive Neural Outcomes
Daniel Dilks, Emory University, Psychology
Secondhand smoke can lead to long-term health problems in children, including increased risk for developmental disorders like ADHD. Although bans on smoking in public places have been successful in reducing overall secondhand smoke exposure, infants and children living in homes with adults who smoke are still at risk. Our study measures exposure to secondhand smoke before and after birth and its effects on the development of infants’ brains and behavior, from as early as 1-month of age to 18-months of age. Moreover, given the recent legalization of marijuana in several US states and thus the increased likelihood of infants’ exposure to secondhand marijuana smoke, we will also measures effects of marijuana smoke on these same infants. Uncovering the impact of early smoke exposures on infant brain development is critical to better inform future prevention efforts and health policies.
How this study contributes to the exposome: This study examines exposure to an environmental toxicant throughout infants’ development and its effect on brain and behavior.
Dr. Daniel Dilks is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Emory College. His research focuses on three big questions about human vision: i) How is the visual cortex functionally organized?, ii) How does this functional organization get wired up in development?, and iii) Once wired up, how does visual cortex change in adulthood?
Developing an Arsenic Exposure Assessment That Can Be Used in India to Study Arsenic, Diet, and Exercise in Relation to Diabetes.
Study Title: Multi-Method Validation of Arsenic Exposure Assessment and Development of an Errors-In-Variables Approach for Evaluating Inorganic Arsenic’s Association with Diabetes Control
Matthew Gribble, School of Public Health, Environmental Health
Arsenic is an element found in nature and commonly used as a wood preservative and a pesticide. It is a major environmental health challenge for rural communities in the United States as well as a top concern in many other countries around the globe, including India. The relationship of arsenic to diabetes is not well understood, yet some evidence suggests that diet and exercise may influence how harmful arsenic is to the body. The long-term goal of this research is to assess how arsenic may interact with diet and exercise in relation to diabetes. A study in India conducted a diabetes-prevention diet and exercise program in two geographical areas; one of the areas had very high arsenic. This pilot study will allow us to identify an accurate way to assess whether someone was exposed to arsenic in India. Once this assessment is validated, we will be prepared for a future study to explore diet, exercise, arsenic, and diabetes in that population.
How this study contributes to the exposome: The results from this study will allow further exploration of the interaction between arsenic, diet, and exercise on diabetes.
Dr. Matt Gribble is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health. Dr. Gribble’s research focuses on drinking water chemical contamination health risks, as well as characterizing the health implications of exposure mixtures and mechanisms of susceptibility (such as predisposing genetics and epigenetics). His research program emphasizes themes of environmental justice, and he works in partnership with diverse communities including indigenous populations in the United States and other populations in lower-and-middle-income countries.
Developing a New Test to Improve Pregnancy Outcomes Among African American Women Exposed to Environmental Chemicals
Study Title: Serum Lipidomics of Pregnant African American Women Exposed to Environmental Toxins
Anna Ivanova, School of Medicine, Emory Integrated Lipidomics Core
Despite tremendous efforts to reduce infant mortality, more than 24,000 infants die in the US every year. Preterm birth is a leading cause of infant mortality. The risk of preterm birth for African American women is twice as high as for white women. There is an urgent need to understand the factors contributing to this racial difference (often referred to as a disparity), and to discover if there is a biological measure that indicates a risk for preterm birth. By knowing the early signs of risk, actions may be taken to avoid preterm birth. Poor pregnancy outcomes are tightly linked with the mother’s exposure to environmental toxic chemicals, tobacco, alcohol, or drugs. These substances alter the normal balance of critical molecules in the human body, such as the lipids (fats). This pilot study will explore which lipid molecules are related to the poor pregnancy outcomes of African American women exposed to different environmental substances. These studies could lead to a new therapeutic approach to predict and improve birth outcomes at the early stages of pregnancy.
How this study contributes to the exposome: The results from this study will allow further exploration of how our body responds to a complex mix of environmental exposures and how that response impacts pregnancy outcomes.
Dr. Anna Ivanova is an Associate Scientist in the Emory Integrated Lipidomics Core. Dr. Ivanova’s broad background in organic chemistry and specific expertise in molecular biology and biochemistry allows her to lead scientific projects of Emory Integrated Lipidomics Core.
Measuring Exposure to E-Cigarette Vapors in Children
Study Title: The Metabolome of Passive Cigarette Exposure in Children
Jeannie Rodriguez and Irene Yang, School of Nursing
E-cigarettes (also known as e-cigs, vapes, Juuls, etc.) are growing in popularity among young adults of child-bearing age, yet little is known about the health impact of children’s secondhand exposure to e-cigarette vapor. This study will determine if the collection of saliva and/or exhaled breath can be used to identify exposure to e-cigarette vapor in children. Collected saliva, exhaled breath, and blood will be analyzed using an approach called metabolomics to describe the cellular response in children who are exposed to secondhand e-cigarette vapors compared to children who are not exposed. This study lays the groundwork for future, larger, and more in-depth research investigating the impact of this exposure on children’s health by identifying a substance other than blood that can easily be collected from children to accurately identify this exposure.
How this study contributes to the exposome: E-cigarette vapors are a relatively new component of the exposome. The results from this study will allow further exploration of this exposure and its impact on human health.
Dr. Irene Yang is an Assistant Professor at Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. Her research focuses on the biobehavioral mechanisms that influence oral health and the relationship between oral health and systemic health. Dr. Jeannie Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor at Emory’s School of Nursing. Her research focuses on understanding exposures and disease development in childhood using an omics approach
Partnering with Atlanta Gardeners to Measure Soil Contamination and Exposure
Study Title: Community-Based Assessments of Soil Contamination and Childhood Exposure to Heavy Metals in Atlanta Urban Agriculture
Eri Saikawa, Emory College, Environmental Sciences
Sam Peters, School of Public Health, Environmental Health Sciences
Community Collaborators: Atlanta’s Mayor’s Office of Resilience, Historic Westside Gardens ATL Inc., Environmental Protection Agency
Growing food in urban areas is becoming more popular throughout the metro Atlanta area. Known benefits include: increased fruit and vegetable consumption, improved weight control, decreased chronic disease, and improved mental health. Heavy metal soil contamination (such as lead) may be found in urban sites used for agriculture; however, there is no publicly available data on the existing levels of heavy metal soil contamination in urban gardens or farms in greater Atlanta. Our study fills this critical void by measuring levels of heavy metal soil contamination in urban gardens and farms and investigating how consumption of contaminated soils or eating vegetables grown in these soils could affect human health. This interdisciplinary study will connect environmental exposure science with community-driven research and health education. Project partners include the Environmental Protection Administration, the City of Atlanta, Historic Westside Gardens ATL Inc., 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.
How this study contributes to the exposome: Gardening and farming provide social, psychological, and dietary benefits. As such, this study will allow further exploration of the interaction between those exposures and soil contamination.
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.
Environmental Exposures and Reproductive Health
Melissa Smarr, School of Public Health, Environmental Health
Environmental chemicals are produced in high volumes for various commercial uses, including personal care products. Exposure to such chemicals is often continual and many of these chemicals have the ability to interfere with hormone functions. These changes may result in negative reproductive health outcomes like infertility, pregnancy loss, or preterm delivery. Many studies of environmental exposures and reproductive outcomes measure chemical concentrations in urine or serum. This measure represents overall exposure, but may not be a good estimate of the amount of chemical absorbed by the tissue, which may be more relevant to health effects. This work proposes to measure chemicals in samples of vaginal tissue in relation to changes in the vaginal microbiome (i.e., a profile of various healthy and/or harmful bacteria found in the human vagina). Directly measuring chemicals in the vaginal tissue represents the actual exposure to the reproductive system. This work may identify a new way to measure vaginal exposures, allowing researchers to discover reproductive exposures that were previously unmeasured or unobserved in relation to health outcomes.
How this study contributes to the exposome: Understanding and measuring the mixture of chemicals that affect the reproductive system is critical to understanding how those exposures impact reproductive health. The results of this study will allow further exploration of the interaction between exposure to environmental chemicals and reproductive health.
Dr. Melissa Smarr is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health. Dr Smarr’s research focuses on environmental influences on reproductive, prenatal, fetal, and children’s health. Dr. Smarr is particularly interested in environmental exposures that affect vulnerable populations, and how such early exposures impact health across the lifespan.
How is the Health of Rural Guatemalan Infants and Mothers Affected by Traditional versus Clean Cookstoves?
Study Title: Differentiating Infant Microbiome and Maternal Metabolome in Rural Guatemalan Infants and their Mothers Relative to Household Air Pollution Exposure
Lisa Thompson, School of Nursing
Household air pollution from cooking with fuels like wood and coal leads to serious health risks for billions of women and children in low-income countries, who suffer unequally from diseases like pneumonia. Our study will follow pregnant women and their infants in Guatemala to test whether switching to a cleaner-burning cookstove leads to health improvements. In our study, half of the participating women will receive liquefied petroleum gas cookstoves, and the other half will use their traditional stoves. We will collect nasal swabs from the women and their infants, as well as breastmilk samples from the women, and use them to examine the microbiome – specifically, the profile of healthy and unhealthy bacteria – of mothers and babies. We will also examine chemical compounds by measuring the metabolome (i.e., the small molecules resulting from cellular responses, including the molecules from chemical exposures) in breastmilk. This will help us to understand the exposures and the related health risks of individuals living in households with higher and lower levels of air pollution.
How this study contributes to the exposome: A key factor in describing the exposome is the ability to measure exposures and the body’s response to the exposure. This study measures exposure to air pollution caused by different cookstoves and the body’s response by examining breastmilk and nasal samples. The results will help explain the relationship between cookstoves, indoor air pollution, and health.
Dr. Lisa Thompson is an Associate Professor at the Emory School of Nursing and affiliated faculty in the Department of Environmental Health at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health. Dr. Thompson’s research focuses on environmental health disparities that contribute to adverse perinatal outcomes. Her unique contribution to nursing research and education is in global environmental health, specifically developing interventions to reduce exposures to household air pollution from cooking fires in low-resource countries.
Developing New Techniques to Identify the Early-Warning Signs of Thyroid Cancer
Study Title: Discovering Early-Warning Indicators for Carcinogenesis: A Pilot Study with Ionizing Radiation-Induced Oncogenic Transformation of Thyroid Epithelial Cells
Qiang Zhang, School of Public Health, Environmental Health
Ya Wang, School of Medicine, Radiation Oncology
Humans are exposed to environmental pollution across their lifetime. People with toxicants (human-made toxic substances) building up in their body may stay clinically healthy for a long time before reaching a tipping point when diseases begin to appear. Discovering new, sensitive, early-warning signals, or biomarkers, prior to the appearance of disease is crucial to precise diagnosis, timely prevention, and intervention. This study will examine the changes of key genes involved in the development of thyroid cancer from radiation exposure. We expect that the way genes express themselves, such as how alike or unalike they are, will change in a certain way before a normal thyroid issue becomes malignant (cancerous). This study aims to develop experimental and computational techniques that can capture these changes. If successful, the method developed here can be extended to predict other cancers and chronic diseases due to environmental exposures.
How this study contributes to the exposome: Understanding how the body responds to complex environmental exposures is a critical component of the exposome. This study examines how cells in the body change before developing thyroid cancer, which will allow early identification of cancer risk so that interventions could stop the cancer from ever developing.
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. Dr. Ya Wang is a Professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Emory School of Medicine. Dr. Wang’s research combines molecular, cellular, and animal biology approaches to develop new technology to improve cancer prevention and treatment.