Bad Environment, Bad Health


Why do certain people become ill from exposure to certain environmental agents, while others remain healthy? Researchers at Duke's new Center for Comparative Biology of Vulnerable Populations will try to find out. According to Duke officials, the center could explore the health implications of many major North Carolina problems, including exposure to air pollution, animal waste from commercial operations, pesticides, and the molds and bacteria that result from floods after such disasters as hurricanes.

"Our center will seek to understand how biological, physiological, and social aspects of vulnerability alter the effect of environmental toxins on human health," says David A. Schwartz, chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Duke Medical Center and director of the new center.

Launched with $2.6 million from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the center will provide training and laboratory facilities for unraveling how interactions between genes and the environment lead to disease. Facilities will include a DNA analytical facility capable of screening the activity of thousands of genes and an inhalation toxicology facility for controlled laboratory testing of environmental exposures.

The multidisciplinary center will span both the campus and medical center, including members from the medical school, the Nicholas School for the Environment and Earth Sciences, the law school, and Arts & Sciences. The university has committed an additional $1 million to support the center and will provide approximately 19,000 square feet of laboratory and office space.

The center team will apply its findings both to advance medicine and to encourage shifts in environmental policy, Schwartz says. With an emphasis on community outreach, the center will offer education to North Carolina schools and other groups about environmental health. In turn, environmental issues of public concern to North Carolina residents will serve to guide new lines of research.

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