Published: July 9, 2013

Teaming up to tackle pervasive pollutants

Contact(s): Andy McGlashen Media Communications office: (517) 355-2281, Norbert Kaminski Center for Integrative Toxicology office: (517) 353-3786

Michigan State University scientists will lead a $14.1 million initiative to better understand how environmental contaminants called dioxins affect human health and to identify new ways of removing them from the environment.

The researchers will use a five-year grant from the Superfund Research Program of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to support multiple studies on the industrial byproducts, which work their way up the food chain to humans, potentially raising the risk of certain cancers and other diseases.

“Dioxins are ubiquitous,” said lead researcher Norbert Kaminski, director of the Center for Integrative Toxicology in MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine and a professor of pharmacology and toxicology. “This class of compounds can be detected virtually everywhere in the world, and they can remain in the environment for decades.”

While previous research on the compounds has involved mice and other animal models, the new project will include studies on donated human cells and tissue to build a more direct understanding of how dioxins affect human health. They’ll focus in particular on how dioxins impact the liver, the immune system and the microbiome – the community of microorganisms living in the gut that play an important role in human health, including immune function.

Other studies within the initiative will look for new insights into how dioxins interact with minerals in soils and how microorganisms in the environment might one day be used to clean contaminated sites. The team also will reach out to communities burdened with dioxin contamination.

“We have a group of investigators who will work with people in the Midland and Saginaw Bay area to provide information to the community about dioxins,” Kaminski said. “There is a significant amount of misinformation out there. Our research findings also can provide scientific information to assist regulatory agencies in decisions about how to best address sites contaminated with dioxins.”

Kaminski said the effort – which includes toxicologists, microbiologists, statisticians, engineers and others – is unusual for the breadth of research expertise involved.

“This is one of the few National Institutes of Health programs where there’s sufficient funding to bring together a large, multidisciplinary group of investigators,” he said. “We have close to 25 scientists who are involved, as well as many students, postdoctoral trainees and technicians. It’s a rare opportunity when you can bring all these different areas of expertise together to focus on a single problem or theme, and that’s why we’re very excited about having this type of funding.”

Other institutions collaborating with MSU on the project include Rutgers University, Purdue University, the Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.