Tucked away in Clifton on the medical side of UC's campus, researchers at the nation’s first Center for Environmental Genetics
continue groundbreaking work, but with a new twist.
Their latest research game-changer involves decades worth of carefully documented biological samples now available for use by their peers all over the world.
If you have never heard of the Center for Environmental Genetics, you are not alone. Housed within the largest department of UC’s College of Medicine, the Department of Environmental Health, the CEG funds research on genetic (your personal script, already written at birth) and epigenetic (beyond genetics – how what you are exposed to today may impact your children’s genes and even further down the line) levels.
Conducting epigenetic studies can be particularly challenging, since multiple generations and variations of exposures are involved. That’s where a long-term human cohort study, started years ago as part of a $78 million settlement at the Fernald Feed Materials Processing Center, comes into play.
For years, residents around the Fernald plant had no idea that their neighbor was manufacturing uranium, not livestock feed. The long-term drama that ensued as the plant was shut down became the stuff of class action lawsuit history. What many residents wanted as much as restitution for their poisoned property was medical help and advice about how their homes might have made them, and their children, and their children’s children, sick.
So the settlement included an important stipulation: the largest medical monitoring project of its kind. From 1990 until 2008, residents were monitored and samples collected from all ages and all backgrounds. The cohort included multi-generational families, with sample collections coded to reflect their relationships.
At the end of the monitoring period, 160,000 biological samples from more than 9,500 participants are now stored at UC’s CEG. Not only can they be used to help examine and improve the lives of the participants and their families, but they can also be sent to researchers around the world who need stable, high-quality samples for their own genetic and epigenetic research.
Locally, doctors found evidence of increased cancer risk among residents, but they also were able to suggest opportunities that might help lower residents’ other risk factors, including the incidence of diabetes and heart disease.
As researchers and community members gathered on UC’s campus last month to discuss the decades-long project, participants and researchers agreed that, when done correctly and comprehensively, medical monitoring leads to both better health and better research.
By Elissa Yancey