February 28, 2019

Two UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health scientists and the chair of the UNC genetics department will lead a new study of the genetic underpinning of diabetes associated with arsenic exposure, thanks to more than $3.3 million in funding by the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

Dr. Miroslav Styblo

Dr. Miroslav Styblo

Dr. Rebecca Fry

Dr. Rebecca Fry

Principal investigators for the project are Fernando Pardo-Manuel de Villena, PhD, professor and chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Genetics, and Mirek Styblo, PhD, professor of nutrition, and Rebecca Fry, PhD, Carol Remmer Angle Distinguished Professor and associate chair of environmental sciences and engineering, both at the Gillings School.

Using genetically diverse mouse models and DNA collected in human cohorts, the team will characterize disease phenotypes associated with chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic and identify genes that convey susceptibility to diabetes.

They also will examine as potential disease-prevention methods the role of diets and nutrients that modulate arsenic metabolism and effects.

Pardo-Manuel de Villena’s work has focused on the development, validation and deployment of the Collaborative Cross (CC) population. The CC is a panel of specially bred mice that have enabled researchers to develop systems genetics approaches to the study of complex traits.

Involved in the CC project since its inception, Pardo-Manuel de Villena has served as the project’s director since 2009, when he oversaw its relocation to UNC, the completion of key proof-of-principle experiments, its release to the research community and its deployment to advance the understanding of a variety of diseases, ranging from Ebola virus infection to metabolic dysfunction.

Styblo’s research interests focus on metabolic disease associated with exposures to environmental contaminants and the role of diet and nutrients as modulators of the disease risk.

“To the best of my knowledge,” Styblo said, “this is the first study to use genetically diverse mice and translational design to identify genetic polymorphisms that increase the risk of developing diabetes in people exposed to arsenic from the environment.”

Fry’s research focuses on understanding the ways environmental exposures to toxic substances are associated with human disease.

“This is an exciting interdisciplinary research opportunity to identify those most vulnerable to arsenic-induced disease and provide solutions to protect them from harm,” said Fry, who also is director of UNC’s Institute for Environmental Health Solutions.

This is the first National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded collaborative grant for these three investigators, after completion of a pilot project last year. Styblo and Fry have collaborated on several population-based and laboratory studies focused on adverse health effects related to environmental metals, including arsenic. This is their sixth jointly-funded NIH project.


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