Five New Research Projects Funded Through EDGE Pilot Program

Zebra fish swim in a lab tank.

The EDGE Center supports five new projects spanning a range of disciplines and approaches aimed at improving our understanding of environmental health.

Each year the University of Washington Interdisciplinary Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics & Environment (EDGE) awards $40 K grants to projects with exceptional promise through its pilot projects program. Many of these projects are led by early career investigators. Many of them are also novel enough that a “proof of concept” study is very helpful to secure additional funding. All of the projects are designed to advance the priorities of the EDGE Center and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), including the development of markers that help measure environmental exposures, early biological response, and genetic susceptibility. 

An additional priority for NIEHS is to “improve and expand community-linked research.” In support of this priority, EDGE awards an additional $10 K to chosen projects that include community engagement among their primary aims. Along with this additional funding comes staff support from the EDGE community engagement core. 

Because the 2023 applicants were so strong, EDGE made a rare decision to fund five projects rather than the usual four. The projects span a range of disciplines and approaches as illustrated in the summaries below:  

Spokane Extreme Heat Risk Intervention Stakeholder Synthesis Symposium

Tania Busch Isaksen

Current trends are for summer heat to increase across the U.S. The 2021 “heat dome” highlighted Washington State’s vulnerability to heat, even in places like Spokane, where heat is routine. Tania Busch Isaksen will hold a symposium to identify 1. lessons learned from recent heat events; 2. research priorities to inform heat management; and 3. existing interventions. The one-day Spokane Extreme Heat Risk Intervention Stakeholder Synthesis Symposium will bring together academics; agency staff; tribal community members; and staff from community-based organizations that serve BIPOC and other at-risk groups. Among other goals, this project will support the creation of a climate resilience hub in Spokane. "We are excited to collaborate with Gonzaga's Center for Climate, Society, and the Environment using a method of community engagement the Collaborative on Extreme Event Resilience has successfully used to engage stakeholders around other climate sensitive hazards," says Dr. Busch Isaksen

Characterization of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) exposure and related protein adductomic signatures to evaluate a local public health intervention in safer degreasers.

Diana Ceballos/Judit Marsillach

Auto repair shops often use degreasers that contain toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are associated with a range of human health problems. Now Drs. Judit Marsillach and Diana Ceballos will test the effectiveness of a new program by the King County Hazardous Waste Management Program meant to transition businesses away from VOC-based degreasers to safer alternatives. They plan to measure markers of VOCs in blood and urine and before and after the public health intervention. They’ll also explore how VOC exposure relates to health outcomes. “I’m excited about this study because it creates the perfect opportunity to work with a local government agency to help improve public health practice by offering safer alternatives to the communities that need them most. This synergistic work will help educate businesses on why and how to stop using toxic solvents as degreasers,” says Dr. Ceballos. 

Bioinformatic tools for assessing health risk of antimicrobial resistance within microbiomes 

Erica Fuhrmeister

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) refers to the resistance to antimicrobial drugs that microorganisms develop through changes that help them overcome the drugs’ toxicity. AMR is an emerging cause of death globally, with an estimated 5 million deaths associated with bacterial AMR in 2019. Dr. Erica Fuhrmeister will advance the study of AMR by looking at a range of genes associated with the type of antibiotic resistance that affects human health. She will also develop a tool to evaluate risk and a learning module for Washington State communities. “AMR or superbugs come up often in the media yet there are a lot of misconceptions about what these terms mean. Engaging with the public about AMR provides an exciting opportunity to get communities involved as stakeholders in a global problem,” says Dr. Fuhrmeister.   

A zebrafish quantitative genetics platform for studying gene-environment interactions 

Yijie Geng

Disease risk is difficult to characterize because it involves a complex interplay of environmental exposures and genetic susceptibility. In this project, Dr. Yijie Geng’s lab will create a set of zebrafish lines to test for associations between entire genomes and disease. The techniques they develop as part of this project will make it possible, for the first time, to study how common genetic variations influence susceptibility to environmental factors and disease. “Once established, the platform we are developing has the potential to substantially improve our understanding of why different individuals respond differently to the same environmental exposure. Such knowledge will have important implications for public health practices,” says Dr. Geng.

A Pilot Study Characterizing Traffic-Related Air Pollution Exposure and Cellular Aging in an Under-Resourced Sample of Mother-Child Dyads

Jonika Hash

Air pollution is deadly- the World Health Organization estimates that air pollution kills around 7 million people each year. It’s also a source of health inequity- in much of the world, exposure to air pollution is highest in areas with the fewest resources. Dr. Jonika Hash will examine how traffic-related air pollution influences cellular aging in a group of mothers and children affected by inequities. The team will estimate the level of exposure by using data from a mobile air pollution monitoring project to determine air pollution levels at each place of residence. This will be done for the places families lived during different stages of the children’s development: infancy and early school age. The team will also use samples to measure cellular aging at early school age, as determined by methylation marks or “tags” that sit above the genome. These measures of cellular aging are novel and may be sensitive to stress. “We hope this will set the stage for better understanding how the body is affected by air pollution during the earliest years of life,” says Dr. Hash.      

The projects that received an additional $10 K to support their community engagement work were those led by Dr. Busch Isaksen, Dr. Fuhrmeister, and Drs. Ceballos and Marsillach.