Why do we study the toxicological effects of environmental pollutants?

Environmental pollution is the human-made “stuff” that our environment is not always able to appropriately handle. In the DeWitt Lab, we are mostly interested in synthetic chemicals that end up in the environment and then make their way into our bodies. Many of these chemicals are used to make products or are products themselves that can provide benefits to humankind. However, the environment, including our bodies, does not have an unlimited capacity to protect itself from all of the different chemicals that it encounters. We also do not understand all of the possible health effects of these chemicals because not all health effects of synthesized chemicals are evaluated before they are used in production processes or final products or allowably and/or accidentally released into the environment. We also still don’t fully understand how certain diseases result from exposure to synthetic chemicals even when we know that exposure is a contributing factor.

Our goal is not to eliminate all synthetic chemicals from the environment; rather, our goal is to determine if exposure to these chemicals contributes to diseases and disorders in humans and wildlife. If we determine that exposure has a negative impact on physiology, such as immune system function, we hope that our data will be used by decision-makers to better protect human and environmental health, by other researchers to dig deeper, and by the public to make informed decisions about the exposures over which they have control.

We also think that toxicology is an amazing area of science! It blends together an array of the sciences to answer questions of public health importance and can lead to positive impacts that protect our air, food, soil, and water as well as wildlife and specific communities and the general population.

What are our current research projects associated with environmental pollutants?

Effects of per- and polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS) on biomarkers of immune function

This project was funded by the NC General Assembly through the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, which established the PFAS Testing Network. Our work focuses on understudied PFAS discovered in the Cape Fear River of North Carolina and how they affect biomarkers of immune function in the adult immune system. Our project is just one of many that brings together researchers from Duke, ECU, NC A&T, NC State, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, and UNC-Wilmington to improve our knowledge of PFAS in NC.

We also had funding from the Brody Brothers Endowment to study additional understudied PFAS found in North Carolina and their impacts on the adult immune system.

Developmental effects of per- and polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS) on biomarkers of immune function

This project is funded by the U.S. EPA through a subaward from the primary awardee, Dr. Robyn Tanguay at Oregon State University. Our work focuses on the developmental immunotoxicological effects of a variety of PFAS. Dr. Tanguay’s group will evaluate the same compounds in zebrafish. Dr. Jennifer Field, also at Oregon State, will evaluate fluids and tissues to help figure out where the PFAS go inside exposed organisms, Dr. Carla Ng from the University of Pittsburgh will make models to explain partitioning within exposed organisms, and Dr. David Reif from NC State University will try to make sense of all of the data!

Neuropathology of Gulf War Illness

This project is funded by the Department of Defense through the CDMRP program on Gulf War Illness and is a collaboration with Dr. Laxmikant Desphande from Virginia Commonwealth University. Our work focuses on the role of microglia in the neuropathology of Gulf War Illness and also includes a preventative pharmacological approach that we hope to develop into an approach to benefit Veterans suffering from Gulf War Illness.

Immunometabolic effects of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)

This project is funded by the Superfund Research Program (SRP) of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences through a subaward from the primary awardee, NC State University. Our work will focus on the immunometbaolic mechanism(s) by which PFAS affect B cells and their ability to produce specific antigens. This SRP-funded center includes four different projects and a team of amazing scientists and community organizations to better describe, understand, and communicate health effects of PFAS as well as devise better treatment options for PFAS in water.

Bioenergetic fingerprints of B cells

This project is funded by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center through a flash grant to help us to follow B cell metabolic signatures from activation through antibody production. Ultimately, we plan to develop this into a cell based assay.

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