Researchers receive $900K+ in grants to investigate links between arsenic exposure, COVID-19 risk
October 30, 2020
Researchers in the UNC Superfund Research Program recently received two new supplemental grants from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Totaling more than $900,000, the grants will support research into how human exposure to arsenic and other environmental contaminants may contribute to SARS-CoV-2 infection risk and severity. Inorganic arsenic is toxic to many organs in the body and is known to increase the risk of cancer and diabetes and to suppress the immune system.
In one project, researchers with the Data Management and Analysis Core — led by Stan Ahalt, PhD, Fei Zou, PhD, and Julia Rager, PhD — are investigating the combined effects of environmental stressors on an individual’s susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2-induced coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Specifically, they are looking at exposure to inorganic arsenic in drinking water plus social stressors such as poverty, income inequality and unemployment.
Social stressors have been shown to suppress human immune function, and the researchers are interested in whether the combined effects of environmental and social stressors enhance susceptibility to disease risk.
One important outcome of this project will be the development of the publicly accessible NC-ENVIRO-SCAN web portal — an innovative public health tool for assessing areas of concern related to combined stressors and COVID-19 infections. Researchers will integrate key datasets of inorganic arsenic contamination, social stressors and COVID-19 information to identify communities with increased risk of infection and disease outcome. To ensure usability for multiple stakeholders and communities of concern, the Community Engagement Core (CEC), will gather community input throughout the development and launch of the NC ENVIRO-SCAN tool.
In a second study funded through the NIEHS, researchers aim to understand how exposure to inorganic arsenic (iAs) affects SARS-CoV-2 infection risk and COVID-19 severity.
This study, led by Fernando Pardo-Manuel de Villena, PhD, and Ilona Jaspers, PhD, uses novel laboratory models that are available only at UNC and are uniquely suited for studies of the interaction between environmental iAs exposure and SARS-CoV-2 infection. The researchers will characterize interactions between inorganic arsenic exposure and SARS-CoV-2 infection using an established model for respiratory infections, differentiated primary human nasal epithelial cells and a novel humanized mouse model, in which the metabolism of iAs resembles that in humans.
“These new research studies have the potential to improve public health in North Carolina and protect people within our state from the harms of enhanced COVID-19 risk due to exposure to inorganic arsenic and other toxic substances,” said Superfund Research Program director Rebecca Fry, PhD.
In addition, CEC staff are collaborating with Pardo-Manuel de Villena and Jaspers to develop timely educational materials for life science classrooms based on this research.
“Partnering with scientists to develop educational materials that showcase the role of emerging science in solving problems and protecting public health promotes student engagement with current biomedical research approaches and data and fosters awareness of biomedical careers,” said Dana Haine, MS, a science educator with the UNC Superfund Research Program.
The Superfund Research Program seeks to develop new solutions for reducing exposure to inorganic arsenic and to prevent arsenic-induced diabetes through mechanistic and translational research. An estimated ~3 million individuals — representing one-third of the population of North Carolina — drink water from private wells, with iAs concentrations in some regions ranging up to 800 parts per billion. These populations are largely located in rural areas of the state, prompting environmental justice concerns.