October 21, 2021

Study to evaluate how environment impacts cancer risk

Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center is leading an ambitious project to assess the impact of environmental exposures on cancer risk for people living in Southern states.

The National Cancer Institute has funded an ambitious project led by Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC) to assess the impact of environmental exposures on cancer risk for people living in Southern states.

Wei Zheng, MD, PhD, MPH

Wei Zheng, MD, PHD, MPH, Anne Potter Wilson Professor of Medicine and associate director for Population Sciences Research at VICC, is the principal investigator of the Southern Environmental Health Study, which has received $2.4 million in funding for the first two years of research.

The grant will be renewed for another four years if research milestones are met. Martha Shrubsole, PhD, a research professor at VICC and another PI, will co-lead this study.

The researchers plan to establish a cohort of 50,000 participants, starting out with 3,500 during the first two years who will be recruited from Mississippi and Arkansas. Participants will answer surveys, provide blood and urine samples and wear wristbands that can track chemical exposures. The wristbands will be worn for a week as the participants go about their normal lives. The data will be cross-referenced with geospatial information from the Environmental Protection Agency and other sources.

“We plan to go across multiple states in the South, and we will recruit people from low-income populations, many of whom live in heavily polluted areas, including Super Fund sites,” Zheng said. “We are not just studying physical and chemical exposures, but also contextual environments, like the socioeconomic characteristics of neighborhoods of study participants.”

The researchers will partner with community health centers throughout the South, similar to the Southern Community Cohort Study, a joint initiative with Meharry Medical College that was launched in 2001. Research is still ongoing with this cohort of approximately 85,000, two-thirds of whom are African American. However, for the Southern Environmental Health Study, a new cohort of 50,000 participants will be recruited.

“The Southern Community Cohort Study really laid a solid foundation for us to launch this new project,” Zheng said. “It’s a different cohort study, but certainly it is connected. “

One of the goals is to identify previously unknown biomarkers to environmental carcinogenic exposures.

The researchers will closely analyze the blood, urine and wristband samples as well as other data from 1,500 participants in a deep-exposome study to look for these biomarkers and develop exposure risk scores.

“Using that information, we plan to apply that to the big cohort of 50,000 people,” Zheng said. “The identification of these biomarkers is not just for us, but it can be used for other studies by other people in the scientific community. They could use the information for their studies.”

The Southern Environmental Health Study will involve researcher partners from other medical institutions.

“We have a fantastic team and expertise from multiple areas that are essential to do this study,” Zheng said. “For example, we have researchers at Vanderbilt very experienced in community outreach and engagement like Dr. Deb Friedman and Dr. Karen Winkfield. We will work closely with investigators from Meharry who have extensive research experience in ethnic minority populations and geospatial work.

“And we will also collaborate with investigators from Mount Sinai and Utrecht university in The Netherlands who have a lot of experience in environmental epidemiology and exposure assessment.

“To recruit low-income populations who are more likely to live in heavily polluted economically deprived communities, we plan to partner with community health centers, medical facilities that provide health care to these under-served populations.

“We believe that this study will address significant questions that are shared by our study communities regarding environmental carcinogens and provide valuable resources for population-based research in the future,” Zheng said.