The National Institutes of Health have awarded two Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) scientists $1.3 million to examine how children’s developing immune systems are affected by a pollutant that has been common in American water systems for decades.
Kathleen Gilbert, PhD, and Sarah Blossom, PhD, have received the four-year grant to study how chronic low exposure to trichloroethylene (TCE) during prenatal, infant and childhood development may contribute to autoimmune diseases like diabetes, lupus and autoimmune hepatitis later in life.
TCE is an industrial solvent accidentally introduced to water supplies decades ago through improper disposal. It is still present in many sources of ground water, some of which are used for drinking in the United States. Studies have shown that TCE can be detected in as much as 10 percent of the American population that is not exposed to TCE in the workplace.
The team has proven the link between TCE and autoimmune disease in the past. NIH has previously funded Dr. Gilbert’s work exploring the effects of TCE on adults and how continuous exposure at higher levels triggered autoimmune responses. NIH also supported Dr. Blossom’s research into developmental windows of low-level exposure to TCE during gestation and infancy.
“Our new research will really focus on how this chemical is programming the immune systems of our children,” said Gilbert, who is also a professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) College of Medicine. “Levels of TCE that in adults may not be dangerous may still cause disease in children, at least at some point in their lives.”
Gilbert and Blossom, an assistant professor of Pediatrics in the UAMS College of Medicine, hope that the research will provide more information on how to counteract biological changes that TCE exposure causes.
“If exposure can’t be prevented, at least maybe we can try and reverse the effects,” Blossom said. “We hope to find that there are dietary and nutritional interventions that can block this.”
Preliminary studies to support this project were funded in part by the Arkansas Biosciences Institute, the major research component of the Tobacco Settlement Processed Act of 2000.