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COE Receives 12th Federally Funded Center

September 21, 2015

CEE Professor Akram Alshawabkeh and his team were awarded the “Center for Research on Early Childhood Exposure and Development in Puerto Rico (CRECE).” This center, funded for $2.9M over 4 years, is supported by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) of the National Institutes of Health.  CRECE will study how pollutant exposure and psychosocial risk factors impact the health and development of children living on Puerto Rico’s heavily contaminated northern coast.  The CRECE team will follow a cohort of 600 children whose prenatal exposure was documented in the PROTECT study, tracking them from birth to age 4. The team at Northeastern includes April Gu, as well as Helen Suh, Justin Manjourides, and Emily Zimmerman from BCHS and Phil Brown from CSSH/BCHS.  The center includes collaboration with the University of Michigan, University of Georgia, and the University of Puerto Rico.  This is a huge success and is a testament to the excellent job being done by Akram and colleagues in the PROTECT Center, which was renewed by NIEHS last year with a five-year, $13.5M award. 

To complement the PROTECT Center and CRECE, the team is also leading 2 new NIEHS-funded training grants, an R25 grant co-led by Akram and Helen that is focused on engaging underrepresented undergraduates in research (“ROUTES - Research Opportunities for Undergraduates: Training in Environmental Health Sciences”), and a T32 pre- and post-doctoral grant led by Phil Brown (“Transdisciplinary Training at the Intersection of Environmental Health and Social Science.”)


Source: News @ Northeastern

Improving the well-​​being of mothers, infants, and chil­dren is one of the nation’s most pressing public health con­cerns. It’s so impor­tant, in fact, that the U.S. Depart­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices included maternal, infant, and child health among the pri­or­i­ties of its Healthy People 2020 ini­tia­tive, along­side cancer, dia­betes, and food safety.

Now, North­eastern is at the fore­front of solving this chal­lenge, leading a robust inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team to bol­ster health and quality of life for women and their children.

Ear­lier this month, the uni­ver­sity received a four-​​year, $2.9 mil­lion grant from the National Insti­tutes of Health...to estab­lish the Center for Research on Early Child­hood Expo­sure and Devel­op­ment in Puerto Rico.

Known as CRECE, which is Spanish for “grow,” the center will study how pol­lu­tant expo­sure and psy­choso­cial risk fac­tors impact the health and devel­op­ment of chil­dren living on the island’s heavily con­t­a­m­i­nated northern coast.

Puerto Rico is home to more than 200 haz­ardous waste sites and par­tic­u­larly high levels of air pol­lu­tion. Its preterm birth rate is among the highest in the world, climbing from 12 per­cent in the 1990s to 17 per­cent today, while the region’s chil­dren suffer dis­pro­por­tion­ately from obe­sity, autism, and asthma.

This work will inform future inter­ven­tion, risk assess­ment, and policy-​​setting efforts for both this at-​​risk pop­u­la­tion and the U.S. as a whole,” said Akram Alshawabkeh, the grant’s prin­cipal inves­ti­gator and the George A. Snell Pro­fessor of Engi­neering at Northeastern.

The knowl­edge we gather will make a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to improving children’s health and reducing the global rate of preterm birth,”
—Alshawabkeh said.

The syn­ergy between two centers

The research—which dove­tails with Northeastern’s focus on solving global chal­lenges in health—will leverage the ongoing work that is being done by university’s Puerto Rico Test­site for Exploring Con­t­a­m­i­na­tion Threats Center.

Founded in 2010, the PROTECT Center has received $23.5 mil­lion from the NIH’s National Insti­tute of Envi­ron­mental Health Sci­ences’ Super­fund Research Pro­gram to con­duct an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary inves­ti­ga­tion into the com­plex rela­tion­ship between ground­water con­t­a­m­i­na­tion and the island’s extremely high preterm birth rate.

Both centers—which include North­eastern, the Uni­ver­sity of Michigan, the Uni­ver­sity of Georgia, and the Uni­ver­sity of Puerto Rico—are co-​​directed by Alshawabkeh, a geoen­vi­ron­mental engi­neering expert, and Jose F. Cordero, the Patel Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor in Public Health at the Uni­ver­sity of Georgia. The cen­ters also include col­lab­o­ra­tions with Earth­Soft Inc., an envi­ron­mental data man­age­ment com­pany, and the Silent Spring Insti­tute, a non­profit ded­i­cated to breaking the links between envi­ron­mental chem­i­cals and women’s health.

CRECE rep­re­sents a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary effort with the poten­tial for tremen­dous impact on our under­standing of how human health is impacted by these chem­i­cals and what can be done to pro­tect exposed chil­dren,” said Nadine Aubry, dean of the Col­lege of Engi­neering. “We are proud to have been chosen to lead a second NIEHS center, which is a strong recog­ni­tion of our lead­er­ship in envi­ron­mental health, and con­fi­dent that like PROTECT, CRECE will serve as an inspi­ra­tional model for others seeking to per­form inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research and help solve the grand chal­lenges of our time.”

The CRECE research team will measure pollution levels; conduct mental health assessments; evaluate parental questionnaires; and analyze air, water, and urine samples.

The CRECE research team will mea­sure pol­lu­tion levels; con­duct mental health assess­ments; eval­uate parental ques­tion­naires; and ana­lyze air, water, and urine samples.

The inter­dis­ci­pli­nary approach

Over the past five years, the PROTECT team has fol­lowed a cohort of 800 preg­nant Puerto Rican women through child­birth, exploring whether expo­sure to com­monly found envi­ron­mental con­t­a­m­i­nants and chem­i­cals has con­tributed to the island’s high preterm birth rate.

The find­ings revealed exten­sive ground­water con­t­a­m­i­na­tion and ele­vated levels of sus­pect chem­i­cals in the cohort’s par­tic­i­pants. They also iden­ti­fied poten­tial mech­a­nisms by which chem­i­cals can stim­u­late preterm birth, the second leading cause of death world­wide in chil­dren under the age of 5.

The CRECE team will build on this work, tracking from birth to age 4 a cohort of 600 chil­dren whose pre­natal expo­sure was doc­u­mented in the PROTECT study.

The researchers will inves­ti­gate how expo­sure to mul­tiple pol­lu­tants impacts child health and devel­op­ment as well as how other fac­tors, including socioe­co­nomic status, maternal stress, and preterm birth, might modify the effects of these expo­sures. Specif­i­cally, they will mea­sure pol­lu­tion levels; con­duct mental health assess­ments; eval­uate parental ques­tion­naires; and ana­lyze air, water, and urine samples.

This study,” Alshawabkeh explained, “will incor­po­rate the totality of the envi­ron­ment to describe how psy­choso­cial, air quality, water quality, product use, and per­sonal expo­sures con­tribute to the health and devel­op­ment of children.”

In addi­tion to Alshawabkeh, five North­eastern fac­ulty mem­bers will par­tic­i­pate in the study.

  • Helen Suh, for example, a professor in the Department of Health Sciences with expertise in air pollution’s health effects, will investigate the link between prenatal exposure to air pollution and adverse birth outcomes.
  • April Gu, for her part, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering whose scholarship focuses on biotechnologies and water quality monitoring, will use a “toxicogenomics-based” approach she developed to examine the pathways by which exposure to a mixture of pollutants or particle matter might affect child health and development.
  • Phil Brown, the University Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Health Sciences who studies community response to toxic waste-induced disease, will lead the project’s community outreach program.

And they’re not alone. In all, the CRECE team com­prises an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary group of engi­neers, envi­ron­mental epi­demi­ol­o­gists, social workers, soci­ol­o­gists, bio­sta­tis­ti­cians, tox­i­col­o­gists, pedi­a­tri­cians, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion neu­ro­sci­en­tists. “When addressing a global chal­lenge like envi­ron­mental con­t­a­m­i­na­tion and human health,” Alshawabkeh explained, “it is cru­cial to inte­grate knowl­edge from a variety of fields, to bring together dif­ferent exper­tise in a uni­fied approach.”

Com­mu­nity outreach

The project’s com­mu­nity out­reach pro­gram will con­vene res­i­dents, researchers, gov­ern­ment agen­cies, and com­mu­nity orga­ni­za­tions to improve the com­mu­ni­ca­tion and prac­tice of children’s envi­ron­mental health in Puerto Rico.

The plan will include an inno­v­a­tive “report-​​back” strategy, which Brown designed in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Silent Spring Insti­tute to ensure par­ents of par­tic­i­pants receive—and understand—their indi­vidual data. It will also include devel­oping envi­ron­mental health edu­ca­tion pro­grams for the island’s res­i­dents; expanding rela­tion­ships with public health com­mu­ni­ties; and coor­di­nating learning oppor­tu­ni­ties aimed at building capacity among health­care professionals.

We’ve devel­oped a strong rela­tion­ship with the com­mu­nity,” Alshawabkeh said. “One of our goals is to pro­mote the sharing of knowl­edge and results across the center and with stakeholders.”