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DRC Director's Report - June 2020

FOEDRC members Al Klingelhutz, PhD, Professor of Microbiology & Immunology and Radiation Oncology and James Ankrum, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, have received funding as part of the Iowa Superfund Research Program (ISRP). As co-directors of 1 of the 5 projects, “Role of Airborne PCBs in Adipogenesis, Adipose Function, and Metabolic Syndrome”, they will focus on how the environmentally prevalent toxin PCB ) (polychlorinated biphenyls) accumulation in fat affects the development of obesity, fatty liver disease, and type II diabetes. The ISRP, headed by Keri Hornbuckle, PhD, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, will receive a total of $11.4 million over a 5-year period to continue its research on polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and the impact they have on human health.

While metabolic syndrome conditions including obesity, diabetes, and hypertension are known to be affected by genetics, diet, and exercise, a group of University of Iowa researchers are studying how chemicals in our environment play an additional role. The Iowa Superfund Research Program (ISRP) studies various aspects of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), a large family of environmental pollutants, that are often found in schools impacting children during key stages of development. 

In the most recent renewal of the program, a new project was launched under the co-leadership of Dr. Klingelhutz and Dr. Ankrum, members of the FOEDRC, that focuses on understanding how PCBs disrupt fat function, leading to the development of the metabolic syndrome. PCBs were used extensively in industry for production of light ballast fluid, caulking, paint, and other building materials and as such are found in high levels in many of our nation’s schools. 

They are found at high levels in school air and are emitted from contaminated waters. While their production in the US has been banned, they are still produced inadvertently in industrial processes and are not naturally degraded. PCBs persist for very long periods of time and exposure through food and air results in accumulation of PCBs in fat tissue. Dr. Klingelhutz and Dr. Ankrum have developed unique tools, including multiple unique immortal human fat cell lines and a 3D human model system of fat, that enable the study of PCB-induced alterations in the maturation and function of human fat in culture. 

As 1 of 5 projects on the ISRP, their studies will be guided by other ISRP projects to determine which of the hundreds of PCBs are most prevalent in air and which are most abundant in human fat. Findings from this project will be of significant interest to regulatory agencies and communities concerned about how PCB exposure affects the development of metabolic syndrome in children, adolescents, and young adults and guide policy and remediation efforts to create a safer environment for our youth.

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