UH Researchers to Study the Effects of Common Toxins

Researchers at the University of Houston will lead a new study on how thousands of toxins affect human health. The three-point-two million dollar grant from the EPA will also help the university raise its research profile. Jack Williams reports.


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“Definitely, over recent years, this is the most exciting challenge that I have.” 

Dr. Jan-Ake Gustafsson is a world-renowned researcher and head of the University of Houston’s Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling. He’ll head the three-year study to find out how chemicals and compounds like arsenic, lead, mercury, benzene and thousands of others affect humans.

“There’s a growing concern, both in Europe and the United States, about the potential toxicity of chemicals in the environment. People are worried that you can have birth defects, you can have sort of extra risk of cancer, like breast cancer, prostate cancer, because of compounds in the environment. These are things that we don’t really understand and cannot really evaluate today.”   

There are more than 80-thousand industrial chemicals in the environment, which makes it difficult to test the effects of each compound.

“So you have to develop more rapid systems, yet reliable systems where you can sort of both add single potentially toxic agents or add them in combination, which is the real situation of life and then have some relatively rapid read-out of the effects.” 

To do that, Gustaffson and his team will use zebrafish and embryonic stem cells from mice to speed the
process. They’ll then run the data through computer programs to help come up with answers faster.

“Our dream, or plan rather, will be then to provide agents like the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency with techniques that are doable and can be used to test new chemicals before they are introduced into the environment.” 

University of Houston System Chancellor and President Dr. Renu Khator says these types of research projects are the ones that will push the university to Tier One status.

“It’s extremely gratifying to see our researchers being successful in this very important national arena and I want to do everything possible to help our professors and researchers really do top-notch research and bring that research into the classroom so we can see our students benefit from it.”

The study should begin within a few weeks and includes researchers at Texas A&M and Indiana University. 


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