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The PROTECT Center Receives Five Year $13.5 Million NIH Grant

June 2, 2014

Congratulations to Akram Alshawabkeh, the George A. Snell Professor of Engineering, and the team of the Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats (PROTECT) Center, who received a five-year $13.5 million award to renew the center from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences within the National Institutes of Health. The center will continue studying exposure to and mitigation of environmental contamination that causes preterm births, with testbed activities in Puerto Rico. The PROTECT Center is an interdisciplinary, multi-university collaboration between Northeastern, the University of Puerto Rico, and the University of Michican, and is co-directed by Prof. Akram Alshawabkeh, and Jose F. Cordero, dean of the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Puerto Rico. The center was established in 2010 when the research team received a $10 million Superfund Research Program grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Puerto Rico was chosen as the PROTECT Center testsite because, with a 17% preterm birthrate, it is the highest of any state or territory of the U.S., and approximately 50% higher than the U.S. average preterm birthrate. Puerto Rico also has over 200 potential hazardous waste sites and many Superfund sites identified as high-risk for the general population by the Environmental Protection Agency. PROTECT researchers have already documented associations between contaminants and preterm birth, and with renewed funding they will continue to display leadership in addressing these global environmental concerns.

Source: News @ Northeastern

North­eastern Uni­ver­sity has received a five-​​year, $13.5 mil­lion award from the National Insti­tutes of Health to con­tinue its inter­dis­ci­pli­nary inves­ti­ga­tion into the com­plex rela­tion­ship between envi­ron­mental con­t­a­m­i­na­tion and preterm birth.

The multi-​​university research team pre­vi­ously received a $10 mil­lion NIH National Insti­tute of Envi­ron­mental Health Sci­ences’ Super­fund Research Pro­gram grant in 2010 to estab­lish the Puerto Rico Test­site for Exploring Con­t­a­m­i­na­tion Threats (PROTECT) Center. The latest grant from the NIH will fund the next phase of a study of the extent to which expo­sure to com­monly found chem­i­cals, such as phtha­lates, is related to the extremely high preterm birthrate in Puerto Rico.

“An aca­d­emic research enter­prise is at its best when it can bring the brightest and most inno­v­a­tive minds together to solve real prob­lems that will make a dif­fer­ence in people’s lives—whether that impact is local or halfway across the world,” said Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs. “The sup­port of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is crit­ical to achieve our goals and to advance sci­en­tific research across disciplines.”

Puerto Rico’s preterm birthrate is about 17 per­cent. At 50 per­cent above the U.S. average, it is the highest rate of any U.S. juris­dic­tion and below only Malawi (18.1 per­cent) glob­ally. Puerto Rico also has many “Super­fund” sites—locations iden­ti­fied as high-​​risk for the public by the Envi­ron­mental Pro­tec­tion Agency—in addi­tion to more than 200 poten­tial haz­ardous waste sites throughout the island.

Over the past three years, the team has doc­u­mented sig­nif­i­cant con­t­a­m­i­na­tion in the study areas and com­pelling pre­lim­i­nary asso­ci­a­tions between con­t­a­m­i­nants and preterm birth.

“We’ve seen exten­sive con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, and women in the study area have been exposed to higher con­cen­tra­tions than those in the U.S.,” said Akram Alshawabkeh, PROTECT’s prin­cipal inves­ti­gator and a pro­fessor of civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering at Northeastern.

While the team’s research focuses on sites in Puerto Rico, the work has global impli­ca­tions. According to Alshawabkeh, reducing preterm birth rates will help save lives and min­i­mize the esca­lating costs of health­care. Preterm birth is the second leading cause of death in chil­dren under the age of 5 world­wide and the leading cause of peri­natal and infant mor­tality in the U.S.

“This recog­ni­tion by NIEHS enhances the college’s rep­u­ta­tion and capa­bility for inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research, as well as demon­strating our lead­er­ship in addressing impor­tant soci­etal issues,” said Nadine Aubry, dean of Northeastern’s Col­lege of Engineering.

In addi­tion to an epi­demi­o­log­ical study that tracks the envi­ron­mental expo­sures of 1,800 preg­nant women, PROTECT’s research projects include iden­ti­fying tox­i­co­logic expla­na­tions for the con­nec­tion between expo­sure and preterm birth; iden­ti­fying xeno­bi­otics (for­eign chem­ical sub­stances) that con­tribute to preterm birth; exam­ining ground­water sys­tems to under­stand how and where con­t­a­m­i­nants are trans­ported; and devel­oping sus­tain­able, solar-​​powered, and environmentally-​​friendly tech­nolo­gies for the reme­di­a­tion of con­t­a­m­i­nated groundwater.

PROTECT—which includes North­eastern, the Uni­ver­sity of Puerto Rico, and the Uni­ver­sity of Michigan—is co-​​directed by Alshawabkeh and Jose F. Cordero, dean of the Grad­uate School of Public Health at the Uni­ver­sity of Puerto Rico. The inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team includes fac­ulty mem­bers from Northeastern’s Col­lege of Engi­neering, Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, and Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties. To sup­port its mis­sion, PROTECT also engages with gov­ern­ment agen­cies and non­profit orga­ni­za­tions such as March of Dimes and the Silent Spring Institute.

The project’s inter­dis­ci­pli­nary focus, Alshawabkeh said, is crit­ical to its suc­cess. The research team includes engi­neers, chemists, health sci­en­tists, and tox­i­col­o­gists, and its work includes con­ducting studies, devel­oping new tech­nolo­gies, and iden­ti­fying strate­gies for pol­i­cy­makers to address the problem.

“When you look into a problem from only one spe­cific dis­ci­pline, you’re solving one part of it,” Alshawabkeh said. “But the prob­lems we’re facing as a society today are multi-​​layered. This team is working together to facil­i­tate a greater under­standing of this problem from many levels and iden­tify diverse ways to solve it.”