Research Programs

Scientifically, the Center is organized around six Environmental Health Research Programs: Cardiorespiratory Effects, Cancer and the Environment, Obesity and Metabolic Disease, Neurological Effects, Study Design and Statistical Methodology, and Exposure Sciences that are integrated by five Cross-Cutting Research Focus Areas: Immunology and Inflammation, Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD), Environmental Health Disparities, Integrative Genomics/Epigenomics and Global Health. Each of the Research Programs is directed by a senior investigator who serves as the program director and by a more junior colleague likely to play leadership roles in future Center activities in this area.

Neurological Effects

Emerging evidence suggests that the environment has important adverse neurological effects across the lifecourse in susceptible populations. This raises important clinical and public health concerns, and our Center has brought together several talented teams of investigators to clarify some of these issues. The Center leads the emerging field of environmental determinants of cognitive decline, stroke, neurodevelopment, and autism. The Neurological Effects Research Program investigates environmental determinants of cognitive decline and associated structural brain changes, Alzheimer’s dementia, and stroke in the elderly as well as the effects of early-life exposures to air pollution, traffic-related air pollutants, and other toxicants in conjunction with a range of cognitive and behavioral health outcomes and trajectories of neurodevelopment among children. Mechanistic studies focus on neurodevelopmental and inflammatory processes and susceptibility to particulate air pollution Program Director: Caleb Finch, PhD Junior Investigator: William Mack, MD

Cardiorespiratory Effects

The Cardiorespiratory Effects Research Program studies short- and long-term effects of ambient air pollutants on lung development, asthma and asthma symptoms, atherosclerosis in children and young adults, major cardiovascular events in adults, and cardiorespiratory mechanisms, including airway inflammation, immunoregulation, and HDL function. Early-life susceptibility, genomics and epigenomics, and integrative systems approaches are also a part of the research agenda. This research program has led to important findings showing that air pollution has chronic cardiorespiratory health effects at current levels and that there are individual factors determining susceptibility to environmental exposures. Program Director: Frank Gilliland, MD, PhD Junior Investigator: Carrie Breton, ScD, MPH

Exposure Sciences


The Exposure Sciences Research Program develops new technologies and approaches for exposure measurement and applies these methods in basic, clinical, and population health studies, including (1) the use of mobile measurement platforms for investigating the characteristics of on-road and near-road air pollution, landing aircraft emissions, and exposures to ultrafine particles, (2) biological assays such as the dithiothreitol (DTT) assay for quantitatively assessing the redox potential and biologic toxicity of airborne particulate matter, (3) enhanced assessment of on-road exposures of commuting populations, (4) enhanced geospatial modeling, and (5) evaluation and protocol development for the use of novel instrumentation, e.g. to provide low-cost but accurate air pollution measurement integrated assignments for ambient elemental carbon exposures (as a marker for traffic or biomass combustion). This research program is building on funded grants to lead the effort in developing the methods, infrastructure, and expertise for real-time high dimensional exposure measurements and collection of time activity and outcome data using smart phones, sensors, and ecological momentary assessment (EMA) techniques.

Program Director: John Froines, PhD
Junior Investigator: Scott Fruin, DEnv

Study Design and Statistical Methodology


The Study Design and Statistical Methodology Research Program focuses on the development of innovative study designs, including multi-stage sampling for environmental health sciences research, and new statistical modeling techniques for environmental research. This research program is focusing on developing systems approaches, data integration including network analyses for omic data with environmental perturbations, pathways approaches for breathomics, metabolomics, microbiome, genomics and transcriptomic data. In addition, the Program is establishing methods for incorporating the exposome into environmental health sciences research and generating new approaches to spatiotemporal modeling of mixtures and multipollutant exposure models.

Program Director: Kiros Berhane, PhD
Junior Investigator: Sandrah Eckel, PhD

Obesity and Metabolic Disease


The Obesity and Metabolic Disease Research Program has a research focus motivated by emerging studies suggesting that the environment affects development of obesity and metabolic diseases. Investigators are studying air pollution effects on obesity development, fat distribution, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, glucose intolerance, beta-cell function, and lipid metabolism. In addition, program investigators are using emerging methods such as mobile phone-based real-time data collection to understand determinants of exposure/dose including physical activity. Mechanistic studies are investigating early life susceptibility, systemic and adipose tissue inflammation and adipokines, neurodevelopmental effects on weight regulation centers, and developmental skewing of mesenchymal stem cells. This new Research Program played a key role in the development of an NIEHS/EPA-supported Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Center focused on air pollution, obesity and metabolic diseases (Southern California Children’s Environmental Health Center (SC-CEHC)) and the NIEHS/NIMHD/EPA-supported Environmental Health Disparities Center of Excellence at USC (Maternal and Developmental Exposures from Environmental and Social Stressors (MADRES)).

Program Director: Rob McConnell, MD
Junior Investigator: Genevieve Dunton, PhD, MPH

Cancer and the Environment


The Cancer and the Environment Research Program is investigating environmental factors in human cancers and how host factors (genetic, epigenetic, health status, obesity, and other social and behavioral factors) influence the carcinogenic process. Research is focused on pesticides and hormonally related cancers, air pollution effects on breast and lung cancer etiology and survival, and ultraviolet radiation (UVR) exposures and skin cancers. A key area that merits further investigation is the role of pesticides exposure in human cancer. Exposures to pesticides are ubiquitous and present a potential to increase cancer risk. There is substantial evidence that many pesticides are endocrine disrupters that mimic hormones or alter hormone metabolism, or directly affect brain regions involved in hormone functioning in a manner that could increase risk. However, the methods to assess pesticide exposures, particularly lifetime exposure patterns needed for cancer research have been limited. Center members Drs. Cockburn, Ritz, Wilson, and colleagues developed a method to construct historical ambient exposures to all pesticides/fungicides used in California. The method defines the external “pesticide exposome” by linking the statewide-mandated California pesticide use report (PUR) records containing information on the type, date, and location of all agricultural pesticide to land use and residential parcel maps and any study subjects’ historical, residential, and occupational addresses. The exposure estimates from this model have been used to for a case-control studies of prostate cancer and breast cancer, as well as studies of childhood cancers, and a record linkage study of adverse birth outcomes.

Program Director: Anna Wu, PhD
Junior Investigator: Wendy Setiawan, PhD, MPH

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