EDGE Center awards four new pilot projects for 2024

A truck with a large yellow tank empties fecal sludge at a waste site.

A truck empties fecal sludge into a waste site in Quelimane, Mozambique, the site of a new city-wide sanitation intervention that will address this unsanitary practice. Photo: Karen Levy.

Four new pilot projects will address emerging environmental health issues that contribute to diseases of public health importance.

In February 2024, the University of Washington Interdisciplinary Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics & Environment (EDGE) awarded grants totaling $40,000 to each of four projects with exceptional promise through its pilot projects program.

Many of these projects represent novel “proof of concept” studies by early-career investigators for whom pilot project support helps to secure additional funding. All of the projects work to advance the priorities of the EDGE Center and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to address emerging environmental health issues that contribute to diseases of public health importance.

An additional priority for NIEHS is to “improve and expand community-linked research.” In support of this priority, EDGE awards an additional $10,000 to a project that includes community engagement among its primary aims and provides staff support from the EDGE community engagement core.


Effects of air pollution on traumatic brain injury

Michelle (Shelly) Erickson (PI), UW Department of Medicine

Air pollution is a health threat that contributes to millions of deaths annually. In addition to its well-established role in heart and lung diseases, air pollution has adverse effects on the brain. Specifically, the portion of air pollution known as particulate matter can cause changes to the nervous system that are associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

Although untested, it’s also plausible that exposure to particulate matter worsens the outcomes of traumatic brain injury. This study will test that possibility by using a mouse model and controlled exposure to traffic-related air pollution.

This study will also test the hypothesis that exposure to particulate matter worsens the outcomes of traumatic brain injury more in older individuals. By exploring the individual and combined effects of particulate matter exposure, traumatic brain injury, and aging, Dr. Michelle Erickson will gain novel insights into how these known risk factors contribute to important diseases of the nervous system like Alzheimer’s.

"Our team is excited to carry out the initial studies that will explore the intersection of air pollution exposure, aging, and traumatic brain injury,” said Dr. Erickson. “Results from these studies will expand our understanding of how air pollution can be harmful to the brain, particularly in older adults.”


Engaging community to overcome barriers to wildfire smoke exposure protection in early life

Catherine Karr (PI) and Christine Loftus (Co-PI), UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS)

As wildfire smoke events increase in frequency and severity across the Pacific Northwest, so does their role in exacerbating health disparities, particularly for rural and agricultural communities. People with lower incomes or living in under-resourced neighborhoods may have fewer resources for protecting themselves and their families from harmful smoke exposure.

Drs. Catherine Karr and Christine Loftus will work to collect information on the experiences of families in the Yakima Valley area of Washington state with the longer-term goal of creating effective and feasible interventions for smoke exposure prevention. 

First, they will work with a community advisory board to develop and pilot a survey that will ultimately be administered to up to 200 pregnant people and parents of young children. The survey will include questions about risk perception, self-protective behaviors and trusted information sources about smoke.

A second part of the project involves a collaboration with Heritage University in which undergraduate students will produce social media materials demonstrating strategies for protecting oneself and loved ones from wildfire smoke exposure. Final products from this study will help multiple stakeholders strategize on how best to build community resilience to smoke in the Yakima Valley.

As Dr. Loftus described, “In partnership with the Yakima Valley community, we will collect data on the experiences of families during wildfire smoke events to fill a data gap that currently limits the translation of research to effective wildfire smoke programs.” Drs. Karr and Loftus have received an additional $10,000 community engagement supplement for this work.


Determining the health and environmental impacts of a city-wide sanitation intervention in Quelimane, Mozambique

Karen Levy (PI) and Kelsey Jesser (Co-PI), UW DEOHS

Safe sanitation is considered one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century, yet 3 billion people still lack improved sanitation infrastructure. Although the benefits seem clear, little work to date has been done to characterize the health effects of city-wide sanitation in low-income areas. This is likely because it’s hard to conduct rigorous, controlled studies of city-wide interventions.

Now Drs. Karen Levy and Kelsey Jesser will participate in an impact assessment of the World Bank–funded Mozambique Urban Sanitation Project. The project takes place in Quelimane, Mozambique, where about 20% of the population currently practices open defecation.

Researchers will conduct a baseline survey of Quelimane neighborhoods and collect and bank stool samples from children. They will use these samples to compare rates of infection between areas with and without sanitation.

This preliminary data will help inform a proposal for a larger grant to evaluate the impacts of the investment in sanitation on environmental exposure risk, children’s health, climate resilience and women’s empowerment. Ultimately, the robust evaluation of this intervention will serve as a model for other urbanizing population centers globally.

“It is more difficult to assess the impact of city-wide sanitation projects than interventions at the individual household level, but potentially more important because the most effective interventions to improve sanitation access are likely at the whole-community scale,” said Dr. Levy. “This project will allow us to collect robust baseline data that will enable a future impact evaluation of a large sanitation improvement project at the city-wide scale in Quelimane."


Novel lung-on-a-chip microphysiological system for assessing adverse effects of diesel exhaust exposures

Judit Marsillach (PI), UW DEOHS, and Edward Kelly (Co-PI), UW Department of Pharmaceutics

Exposure to air pollution is associated with a wide range of diseases, including cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The lung is the first organ to interact with air pollutants, but little is known about what happens to human lung cells after exposure to air pollutants such as diesel exhaust.

Even less is known about individual susceptibility to lung injury. Exposing human primary airway cells can tell us something about individual variability in response, but such a system lacks the complexities of in vivo lung physiology.

Drs. Marsillach and Kelly will establish and validate a new system known as “lung-on-a-chip” for investigating the effects of environmental exposures such as air pollution on the lungs. This system will allow for an array of respiratory cell types to live together and interact with endothelial cells seeded in an adjacent channel, mimicking an airway-blood vessel interface.

Drs. Marsillach and Kelly will use this system to look for patterns of inflammation and altered gene expression in response to diesel exhaust exposure. They hope their technology will also be used broadly to more accurately model human lung diseases, study other exposures, and screen for therapies to better protect susceptible people from the adverse effects of air pollution.

“Our proposed airway-blood vessel lung-on-a-chip represents a novel approach to study the impact of environmental exposures on lung health,” said Dr. Marsillach. “Through collaborative efforts across different departments within the UW, we are excited to advance our understanding of respiratory diseases and the potential future applications of our lung-on-a-chip.”