The UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center aims to drive actionable results in environmental toxicology and epidemiology, with the San Joaquin Valley as a test bed and beneficiary.

It’s been called “the food basket of the world” and “land of a billion vegetables” for its unrivaled swath of highly productive farmland – but California’s San Joaquin Valley unfortunately isn’t all just idyllic green fields, blossoming orchards and roadside stands.

This lower half of the Great Central Valley is also home to some of America’s worst air quality and some of the state’s highest levels of water contamination, pesticide use and poverty. At the same time, reports suggest that the region generally has a higher prevalence of almost every disease and health threat.

So it’s both a ripe test bed and a deserving beneficiary for a UC Davis Health research center focused on identifying connections between environmental toxicants and disease — with an ultimate eye toward also developing preventions that can help to safeguard communities from unhealthy exposures.

Launched in 2015 with a five-year, nearly $8 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (one of the National Institutes of Health), the UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center is one of two such “core centers” in the state – the other is at the University of Southern California – and part of a nationwide network of 21.

The UC Davis location builds on a notable tradition of environmental epidemiology impact at the university – already the cradle for several epidemiological studies of historic scope and scale – and includes experts from multiple departments and disciplines. Working together, they dig for actionable information about links between environmental factors and diseases such as asthma, type 2 diabetes and autism – conditions that are both endemic in the San Joaquin Valley and increasing nationally.

“Environmental chemicals have been shown to have a broad range of health effects – not just on children’s brains, but also on aging brains, on respiratory health, ophthalmic function, cardiovascular health and metabolic conditions such as obesity,” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, M.P.H., Ph.D., an internationally renowned environmental epidemiologist who is the UC Davis center’s director and vice chair for research in the UC Davis Department of Public Health Sciences.

“By studying environmental chemicals and their contributions to illness and disability, we can provide hard data to help empower Central Valley communities when they seek solutions to troubling health conditions. And many of our findings will also be relevant for families, communities and policy makers everywhere.”

Tackling mistrust in vulnerable communities

To ensure its research is as insightful, pertinent and actionable as possible, the UC Davis center engages directly with affected San Joaquin Valley communities to foster partnerships between scientists and area residents. An advisory committee of stakeholders from community and government organizations such as the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, the nonprofit Community Water Center, and the Fresno Metro Ministry helps to advise researchers, Hertz-Picciotto said, and has begun to reshape the center’s priorities and approaches.

Stakeholder groups are invited to pose questions that researchers might have the expertise to answer, and stakeholder-suggested topics are distributed in calls for pilot projects. As examples: the center engaged a health economist to follow up on one community leader’s query about the health costs associated with pesticide use, and community members also advised on potential water sampling sites for an animal model study of carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting toxicity in the region’s drinking water.

“This kind of approach tackles a problem of historical mistrust within vulnerable communities — which is born of past experiences where researchers come in, collect their data and then disappear,” Hertz-Picciotto said. “What we’re doing instead is building relationships with these communities, so they can take ownership of the results and be empowered to help see them translated into public health measures that actually reduce disease and disability.

“It’s about more than just the practical issue of making sure that our results are relevant — this work goes even deeper.”

University-wide approach

The center’s research itself involves experts from several UC Davis schools and colleges — such as medicine, veterinary medicine, engineering, agricultural and environmental sciences, biological sciences and letters and science — and contributions from several of the university’s other research and policy centers.

In one example, a veterinary toxicologist is working with the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center to tease apart biologic mechanisms that may explain how air pollutants influence brain function. In another, engineers and pulmonologists have joined forces to develop a wearable sensor device that could help define the specific environmental and chemical triggers of childhood asthma. Experts on community-academic partnerships from the UC Davis Center for Regional Change have also fostered new projects (for more examples of specific Environmental Health Sciences Center projects, see this issue's article on environmental toxins and disease).

Including experts in both veterinary and human medicine in the Environmental Health Sciences Center provides human-health researchers unique access to laboratory resources and animal models for testing the health outcomes of toxic exposures, said the center’s associate director and lung biology specialist Kent Pinkerton, Ph.D. In his own laboratory Pinkerton assesses the influence of a wide variety of airborne particulates on pulmonary disease, using equipment that was designed to reproduce real-world air quality conditions as part of a recent center-supported pilot project.

“Leveraging our laboratories and our talent across population science, basic science and translational science uniquely positions us to provide innovative solutions that are well beyond what typical ecology approaches offer,” said Pinkerton, a professor of anatomy, physiology and cell biology in the School of Veterinary Medicine and professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine.

Nurturing ideas and ideamakers

By supporting budding scientists in the field — as well as established researchers now turning their skills to environmental health problems — center leaders also hope to lay strong foundations for ongoing, expanded study in the San Joaquin and beyond.

Providing funds to test quality ideas is one mechanism for progress, and 24 projects have now received pilot funding or other support through the center as of this spring. Some have already led to larger studies and/or additional funding from the NIH. Others are still developing methods to evaluate toxic chemicals in breast milk, the gastrointestinal tract, semen, immune cells and other possible receptors (see environmental toxins article).

Training the next generation of environmental health scientists is also a major goal. Early-career faculty from a variety of disciplines can gain valuable input on their research ideas during monthly feedback sessions held in conjunction with the UC Davis Clinical and Translational Science Center, and more formal mentoring and laboratory support is also available.

The first UC Davis scholar selected for career-development support was environmental toxicologist Michele La Merrill, who went on to earn a $1.3 million federal grant to investigate the banned-but-lingering pesticide DDT and its relationship with insulin resistance. The second, physiologist Melanie Gareau, earned federal support to examine how probiotics affect certain intestinal imbalances in newborns that are linked to a variety of health problems later in life.

The current scholar, Rebecca Calisi Rodriguez, has already gained national attention for past work that identified pigeons as possible “coal mine canaries” for the prediction of child-threatening lead contamination at the neighborhood level. She’s currently developing the model for a broader range of pollutants and their impacts on neurobiology and reproductive endocrinology.

“The center really gives us an opportunity to reinvigorate environmental health science,” Hertz-Picciotto said. “We’re excited about the partnerships we can inspire.”