Grant fuels study of Superfund impact on preterm births

Baylor College of Medicine recently received a Superfund Research Program (SRP) grant of nearly $10 million over five years from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to establish a Multiproject Research Center at Baylor. The grant will fund researchers from Baylor and its collaborators from Rice University and the University of Texas Medical Branch to study how toxicity of environmental chemicals emanating from Superfund sites impacts preterm births.

The Harris County preterm birth rate is about 11.6 percent and continues to increase progressively. This is significantly higher than the national average of 10 percent, according to Dr. Bhagavatula Moorthy, professor of pediatrics and neonatology at Baylor and Texas Children’s Hospital and principal investigator and director of the new Baylor SRP center. Babies born before the start of week 37 of pregnancy are considered premature. There are more than 20 EPA Superfund sites around Houston, and people living in these areas are more prone to preterm births.

“Harris County has a high number of preterm births,” Moorthy said. “Babies born too early can have health problems, such as lung issues and developmental issues, and the cost to treat these babies is very high.”

Researchers will focus on chemicals and their contributing factors to preterm births. They will propose different studies that have both biomedical and engineering components from Baylor and Rice University to promote health for pregnant women living near the Superfund sites.

“Our goal is not only to do research, but to educate the community, and this will be done in collaboration with researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston,” Moorthy said. “We want to identify the chemicals, find out how they’re causing toxicity, and learn how to remediate them to prevent health problems associated with these chemicals, especially as it relates to pregnant women and children.”

Rice has two co-principal investigators in the center, and their contributions will involve two areas of expertise:

Dr. Naomi Halas, the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and professor of chemistry, bioengineering, physics and astronomy, and materials science and nanoengineering at Rice, and her colleagues plan to develop ultrasensitive methods for the detection of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAC). PAH and PAC are pollutants produced by burning fuels — including gasoline, coal, wood and even cigarettes – as well as the decay of organic matter.

Dr. Kyriacos Zygourakis, the A.J. Hartsook Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a professor of bioengineering at Rice, Dr. Pedro Alvarez, the G. R. Brown Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and their team will further develop and test a pyrolytic approach to remediate contaminated soils. Recent work by the group demonstrated that pyrolysis, a method to heat soil while keeping oxygen out, can be used to not only clean soil contaminated by heavy oil, but also to restore its fertility.

This will be the first ever Superfund grant for Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University and the Texas Medical Center in Houston. Houston will be home to one of the two SRP centers in Texas, and among the 28 SRP centers in the United States.

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