August 28, 2008
The newest Gillings Innovation Laboratory at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health will tap new technology to help researchers examine individual differences in the metabolism of inorganic arsenic and in the susceptibility to adverse effects associated with chronic exposures to arsenic.

The ultimate goal is to find out why some people exposed to arsenic develop diseases while others exposed to the same level of the contaminants do not get sick.


Dr. Miroslav Styblo

Dr. Miroslav Styblo

Miroslav Styblo, PhD, UNC research associate professor of nutrition and toxicology, will lead the laboratory, which will bring state-of-the-art technology to UNC to find biomarkers in human tissue that would provide clues about which people are most susceptible to the adverse effects of chronic exposure to arsenic.

Inorganic arsenic is a potent cancer-causing chemical that occurs naturally throughout the world, especially in drinking water supplies. Exposure to arsenic in drinking water has been linked to various cancers, including skin, urinary bladder, liver and lung cancers. It also has been linked to other diseases, including high blood pressure, heart diseases and diabetes.

An estimated 60 million people in South Asia and South East Asia are at risk of developing these diseases from high levels of naturally occurring arsenic in their drinking water. At least 13 million Americans, primarily in the western United States, also are exposed to arsenic in drinking water at levels that exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maximum contaminant level and the maximum level recommended by the World Health Organization.

“Worldwide, millions of people suffer from cancer and other diseases associated with drinking water containing high levels of inorganic arsenic,” Styblo said. “However, the susceptibility to disease varies tremendously, even among individuals who are exposed to the same levels of arsenic. We’re trying to understand why some people develop health problems when exposed to arsenic, and why some people don’t.

“There is evidence to suggest that differences in arsenic metabolism are in part to blame,” he said. “If we understand which individuals are at highest risk of developing diseases from arsenic exposure, then maybe we can design more effective strategies for treatment or prevention of these diseases.”

Through this project, Styblo said he planned to establish an analytical laboratory to develop instrumentation and methods for analysis of critical metabolites of arsenic in human tissues targeted by arsenic. The instrumentation and methodology to be used in the new laboratory show potential for analysis of some of the most toxic metabolites of arsenic in complex biological samples, including human cells and tissues. No other analytical method is currently capable of this kind of analysis. By building this laboratory, the School of Public Health will be uniquely positioned to support research projects focusing on novel markers of arsenic toxicity in target human tissues.

“This laboratory is an example of the school’s ‘basic science’ research that has a strong connection to human health,” said Julie MacMillan, managing director of Carolina Public Health Solutions, the office within the School of Public Health that manages programs associated with a $50 million gift to the school from Dennis and Joan Gillings.

“Dr. Styblo is a nationally and internationally recognized expert on biochemistry and toxicology of arsenic,” MacMillan said. “He has served on several EPA scientific advisory and review panels and boards examining the impact of arsenic in the environment and on human health. He’s extremely well-qualified to lead this research.”

Working with Styblo on this project are researchers from the nutrition and environmental sciences and engineering faculty, experts in the trace metal analysis from the Institute of Analytical Chemistry (the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic) in Prague, several research groups at the EPA, and Centro de Investigacion y de Estudios Avanzados del I.P.N. and Universidad Juarez del Estado de Durango (both in Mexico).

“By combining expertise in the areas of environmental health and medicine, biochemistry, toxicology and analytical chemistry of metals and metalloids,” Styblo said, “this team can guarantee that results of this laboratory will be promptly translated into population-based studies with direct impact on public health in the areas and populations affected by arsenic exposures.”

The Gillings Innovation Laboratories, or GILS, were established in 2007. Each innovation lab will engage in one or more of these areas: high-impact research, demonstration projects and teaching practices which anticipate future public health challenges and accelerate sustainable solutions in North Carolina and around the world.

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For more information on Gillings Innovation Laboratories, see

Note: Styblo can be reached at (919) 966-5721 or email address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

School of Public Health contact:
Ramona DuBose, (919) 966-7467 or


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