Worldwide, high rates of obesity and other inflammatory conditions are associated with increased risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Investigating how environmental chemical exposure impacts the gut microbiome to exacerbate these conditions is the goal of a new $7 million grant awarded to Andrew Patterson, professor of molecular toxicology and the John T. and Paige S. Smith Professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health, awarded the funding under its Revolutionizing Innovative, Visionary Environmental health Research, or RIVER program. According to the institute's website, the RIVER program provides support for "outstanding environmental health sciences researchers who demonstrate a broad vision" and "gives them intellectual and administrative freedom, as well as sustained support, to pursue their research in novel directions in order to achieve greater impacts."
Risk factors such as diet and lifestyle, as well as rare examples of genetic predisposition, can't entirely explain this rapidly growing public health problem. There is compelling scientific evidence that exposure to environmental chemicals through the diet -; in particular, persistent environmental chemicals -; may play an important role in these chronic diseases."
Andrew Patterson, professor of molecular toxicology and the John T. and Paige S. Smith Professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences, Penn State
Patterson, who also holds an appointment as professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Eberly College of Science, pointed out that levels of these chemicals increasingly are found in humans. He said research is urgently needed to study the mechanisms associated with environmental chemicals and to evaluate their connection with chronic diseases like obesity and inflammatory bowel disease.
"Our bodies have receptors that respond to our diet, the environment and the gut microbiome, and these receptors can impact our metabolism and the effectiveness of our immune system," Patterson said. "Previous research has shown that one of these receptors -; the aryl hydrocarbon receptor or AHR -; is a key factor that facilitates communication between the host and gut microbiome and is a pivotal regulator of the immune system."
He said his group will begin by building on its studies of the AHR and the gut microbiome and will transition to examine other key receptors, with an eye toward identifying the mechanisms by which environmental chemicals influence host-microbiome interactions to exacerbate chronic disease.
Patterson will lead an interdisciplinary team consisting of experts in biochemistry, enzymology, immunology, metabolism, microbiology and toxicology. He credited the supportive and collaborative environment fostered by the College of Agricultural Sciences, the Eberly College of Science, the Penn State Cancer Institute and the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences for providing the intellectual and scientific environment enabling the team to pursue its broad visions supported by the RIVER program.
Cutting across three main themes, Patterson explained, the researchers will:
-; Examine how early-life exposure to environmental chemicals alters the gut microbiome to impact health outcomes -; such as metabolic disorders or acute and chronic inflammatory bowel disorders -; later in life.
-; Investigate how environmental chemicals directly impact commensal, or beneficial, bacteria of the gastrointestinal tract including their metabolic activities and their potential to modulate human health.
-; Explore pathways involved in how environmental chemicals control and influence human health.
Patterson said each theme addresses important questions related to environmental chemicals and the gut microbiome, and he anticipates that advances made within one theme may impact the direction of the others.
"The RIVER program will provide us the flexibility to rapidly adapt to new data and observations, and to pivot quickly to test new, innovative hypotheses," he said.