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June 9, 2000


Exactly how toxic substances in the environment adversely affect human health will be the focus of a new UCSD Superfund Basic Research Program, established with a five-year federal grant of approximately $20 million to the School of Medicine. The grant is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

The program will conduct a number of projects studying 20 of the most toxic Superfund-site contaminants and their effects on humans, animals and the environment," said Congressman Bob Filner, D-San Diego, who announced the grant. “We can expect tremendous discoveries by the researchers. Scientists will use these findings to develop tools to better evaluate health risks from Superfund site chemicals, and finally to develop mechanisms to minimize or eliminate hazardous risks."

Capitalizing on advances in molecular biology and recombinant DNA technology, the UCSD Superfund team will develop new approaches to measuring the harmful effects of hazardous chemicals on biological systems at the molecular level.

"UCSD is a leader in environmental science. From the earth to the oceans to the atmosphere, our faculty tackle environmental issues from a multitude of perspectives," said UCSD Chancellor Robert C. Dynes. "With this important new program, we now bring our expertise to bear on how man-made pollutants undermine our health."

"Our goal is to determine how toxicants alter very specific cellular and molecular functions in different organisms, and describe how these changes can lead to disease," said Robert Tukey, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology at the UCSD School of Medicine and principal investigator of the grant, which starts July 1. "We will be able to use this knowledge to better evaluate the health risks associated with specific chemicals, and possibly develop tools for remediation to minimize the health consequences of exposure. The unique issues associated with pollution along the U.S./Mexican border, including water-born contamination, will also be addressed in our research and outreach activities."

Through several interrelated projects uniting scientists from a variety of disciplines, the UCSD Superfund program team will study genetic changes resulting from exposure to environmental toxins. They will identify genes that are especially susceptible to toxic substances, and explore alterations in gene expression leading to disease. In addition, project teams will focus on using plants and other organisms to remove toxic contaminants from water and soil. UCSD policy experts will manage an outreach component, working with local schools and industry leaders to improve understanding of disease risks resulting from exposure to toxic pollutants, particularly in certain geographic areas.

"This grant brings together brilliant science, our strengths in information and computer technology, and our regional leadership in U.S./Mexican border relations, to create a milieu of innovation," said Keith Pezzoli, Ph.D., professor of urban and rural studies and leader of the UCSD Superfund outreach program. "In addition, through outreach, we will create a bridge linking the research with the community."n>

The NIEHS Superfund Basic Research Program was established in 1986. Funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and administered through the NIEHS, an institute of the National Institutes of Health, these programs are university-based research efforts dedicated to studying the effects of hazardous substances in the environment on human health. The program was created following the establishment of the Superfund Program by Congress in 1980, which mandated the EPA to oversee the identification and clean-up of hazardous waste sites throughout the country.

Researchers will be linked with the San Diego Supercomputer Center and the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, both based on the UCSD campus.

Collaborators include faculty from UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Scripps Research Institute, and Aurora Biosciences Corporation, as well as from UCSD's departments of pharmacology, pathology, chemistry and biochemistry, neurosciences, biology, pediatrics, bioengineering and urban planning.

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Media contact:  Leslie Franz, (619) 543-6163   RETURN TO UCSD HEALTHBEAT