May 25, 2005 | By: Laura Skillman, Carl Nathe

The National Institutes of Health has awarded a grant of more than $6.6 million to the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture to study the toxicity of environmental pollutants with a focus on nutrition, health and disease. This is the largest single NIH grant ever received by the college. 

This Nutrition and Superfund Chemical Toxicity grant will employ more than 50 people at UK, including faculty, research scientists and students.

Under the leadership of principal investigator and director Bernhard Hennig, professor of nutrition and toxicology in the College of Agriculture, and associate director Leonidas Bachas, professor of chemistry, this funding is the latest to support the work of UK’s Superfund Basic Research Program (SBRP), an interdisciplinary research group which was formed several years ago. The SBRP examines the potential links between various diseases and contaminants found at Superfund sites, including chlorinated pollutants such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). 

“Kentucky has some of the worst health statistics in the United States, with a high incidence of age-related diseases including atherosclerosis, cancer, obesity, hypertension, and diabetes, and poor dietary habits such as high intake of processed foods rich in fat and low in fruits and vegetables,” said Hennig. “The state also has numerous Superfund sites, areas identified by the federal government as containing high levels of toxic pollutants, which could markedly contribute to the onset of age-related diseases.”

Previous research studies have shown that PCBs are persistent and widely dispersed in the environment. The diet is a major route of exposure to PCBs and other chlorinated organics.

“In addition to nutrition as it relates to health and disease, one of the emerging issues in modern toxicological sciences is the modification of environmental toxicity by nutrients. Conversely, alterations of the biological or metabolic activity of nutrients by environmental pollutants may be equally important,” said Hennig. “Nutrition may be the most sensible means to develop primary prevention strategies of diseases associated with many environmental toxic insults.”

“We will ask the question: how does nutrition regulate the toxicity of Superfund pollutants and thus impact health and disease outcome associated with these chemicals,” said Bachas. “In this study, biomedical projects will focus on vascular diseases common in Kentucky. We also will explore novel techniques for both remediation (detoxification) and biosensors associated with these contaminants.”

It is hoped that this research could lead to dietary recommendations for people at risk. In addition to the basic research, the results will be utilized for educational, technology transfer, training, policy and other purposes.

Nancy Cox, associate dean for research in the College of Agriculture, praised the efforts of Hennig and the team of scientists. 

“The project brings the best scientists from many different disciplines and colleges together for a high-impact project that advances our knowledge of one of the most pervasive chemical contaminants in our environment,” Cox said. “This project integrates excellent science, ranging from cellular and molecular effects of PCBs in organisms to PCB sensing and mitigation and will provide vital information to Kentucky residents about Superfund sites.”


Writer: Laura Skillman 270-365-7541 ext. 278