Texas A&M, TMC partners unlocking the mysteries of environmental health through team science

Globally more than one quarter of all deaths and disease can be attributed to the environment.  A research team led by Cheryl Lyn Walker, Ph.D., with the Texas A&M Health Science Center Institute of Biosciences and Technology and College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, along with partners from across Texas A&M and the Texas Medical Center (TMC) in Houston, is intent on altering that staggering statistic. Together, they have created an unprecedented, cross-institutional initiative known as the Center for Translational Environmental Health Research (CTEHR). Recently named by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as the newest National Center of Excellence in Environmental Health Science, the center will serve as the cornerstone for integrated environmental health research, translation of research advances into practice and community outreach and engagement aimed at improving human health.

Researchers solve environmental health issues with new center

The Center for Translational Environmental Health Research brings together top environmental scientists from across Texas A&M, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Houston working toward a common goal:  better understand the effects of environmental exposure on human health.

“The Texas Medical Center is the most import health-related district in the world; but until now, no entity has existed to lead the world-class research performed here in the area of human environmental health,” said Brett P. Giroir, M.D., executive vice president and CEO of Texas A&M Health Science Center. “Through their combined efforts, CTEHR will harness the unparalleled scientific capabilities of this resource-rich location to promote new discoveries, and then translate these discoveries into preventions and treatments that could save millions of lives worldwide.”

One of only 21 centers of excellence in the country, CTEHR, which includes collaborators from across The Texas A&M University System, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Houston, is poised to lead the state and nation in better understanding the effects of the environment on human health. In short, center members are focused on translating research advances in environmental causes of disease to improve detection, prevention and management of diseases induced or worsened by environmental exposures.

“We are delighted to welcome the CTEHR team into the Environmental Health Sciences Core Center fold. Under the leadership of Dr. Walker, and with its discovery pipeline and state-of-the-art resources, we expect the center will build teams to address complex questions in health and of concern to communities both locally and nationally,” said Les Reinlib, Ph.D., director for the Environmental Health Sciences Core Centers Program at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a branch of the NIH. “We are confident that the new center will enhance research and outreach on the interaction of genes with common exposures that may alter our risk for disease.

Through a novel bench-to-bedside-to-community approach, the center will accelerate the process of advancing basic scientific discoveries and translating them into treatment and prevention approaches for individuals at highest risk for environmental diseases, including vulnerable populations such as children and low socio-economic individuals.

“Understanding and mitigating environmental causes of diseases, such as asthma, heart disease, obesity and cancer, offers the greatest opportunity to decrease disease burden,” Walker said. “Unlike genetic causes of disease, environmental exposures are modifiable, and if detected early, present opportunities for intervention to prevent disease occurrence, and transmission to the next generation.”

CTEHR brings together environmental health scientists from a wide array of fields including cell and molecular biology, structural biology, biochemistry, genetics, pharmacology, physiology, toxicology, epidemiology, veterinary medicine, biostatistics and engineering. Working toward a common goal, the scientists will look at a number of environmental risk factors including: air quality, chemicals, radiation, bacteria and lifestyle choices, such as diet and exercise, to determine the link to disease in humans throughout the course of their lives.

“This is a great opportunity for major Texas institutions to address the environmental health issues of Texas,” said Melissa Bondy, Ph.D., professor in the National Cancer Institute designated Dan L. Duncan Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine and associate director of the new center. “As one of the top 25 medical schools in the country and based in Houston with access to populations with health disparities, Baylor College of Medicine is uniquely positioned to translate environmental health research advances to the clinic and into the community.”

This translational effort will create bridges between center members, surrounding communities, and other stakeholders to further scientific collaborations and dissemination of research results. Through fostered resources and expertise, the center will enable individuals, communities and policy makers to make informed decisions about environmental exposures and to mitigate environmental disease risks.

“The CTEHR exemplifies the Texas A&M University Grand Challenge, One Health, which refers to the inextricable link between animal, human and environmental health. Animals and people share many diseases and are similarly affected by the environment. As the only College of Veterinary Medicine in the State of Texas, we are pleased to play a major role in discovery and translation of the research results that will benefit both animals and people,” said Eleanor M. Green, Carl B. King Dean of Veterinary Medicine. “We have a long-standing record of NIEHS supported center and program project funded environmental health research, and look forward to being a part of this scientific dream team, with partners like Texas A&M Health Science Center, its Institute of Biosciences and Technology, and the world-class Texas Medical Center.”

Additional collaborators from across Texas A&M include researchers with AgriLife Research, Bush School of Government and Public Service, College of Education and Human Development, College of Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and Dwight Look College of Engineering.

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