Assessing the Southern Environment and Cancer Risk

Epidemiologist Wei Zheng, MD, is serving as principal investigator of the Southern Environmental Health Study.
Assessing the Southern Environment and Cancer Risk
Epidemiologist Wei Zheng, MD, is serving as principal investigator of the Southern Environmental Health Study.
New multi-institutional study aims to develop risk scores for environmental exposures.

The NCI has funded an ambitious project led by Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center to assess the impact of environmental exposures on cancer risk for people living in Southern states.

Wei Zheng, M.D., Ph.D., Anne Potter Wilson Professor of Medicine and the associate director for population sciences research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, is the principal investigator of the Southern Environmental Health Study, which will receive $2.4 million in funding for the first two years of research.

“We are not just studying physical and chemical exposures, but also contextual environments, like the socioeconomic characteristics of neighborhoods of study participants,” Zheng said. “We plan to go across multiple states in the South, and we will recruit people from low-income populations, many of whom live in heavily polluted areas, including Superfund sites.”

The grant will be renewed for another four years if research milestones are met. Cancer epidemiologist, Martha Shrubsole, Ph.D., associate director of the International Epidemiology Field Station at Vanderbilt, will co-lead the study.

Extensive Data Collection

The researchers plan to establish a cohort of 50,000 participants, starting out with 3,500 during the first two years to be recruited from Mississippi and Arkansas.

“We are not just studying physical and chemical exposures, but also contextual environments, like the socioeconomic characteristics of neighborhoods of study participants.”

Participants will answer surveys, provide blood and urine samples, and wear wristbands that track chemical exposures. The wristbands will be worn for a week as the participants go about their normal lives. The data will be cross-referenced with geospatial information from the Environmental Protection Agency and other sources.

One of the goals is to identify previously unknown biomarkers of environmental carcinogenic exposures. To look for these biomarkers, the researchers will closely analyze the blood, urine and wristband samples as well as other data from 1,500 participants in a deep-exposome study and develop exposure risk scores.

“Using that information, we plan to apply that to the big cohort of 50,000 people,” Zheng said. “The identification of these biomarkers is not just for us, but it can be used for other studies by other people in the scientific community.”

Teaming Up with Community Health Centers

Partnerships with community health centers throughout the South will help ensure the inclusion of individuals of low socioeconomic status, Zheng explained.

“To recruit low-income populations who are more likely to live in heavily polluted, economically deprived communities, we plan to partner with community health centers, medical facilities that provide health care to these underserved populations.”

A similar approach was used for the Southern Community Cohort Study, a joint initiative launched in 2001 between Vanderbilt, Meharry Medical College and the International Epidemiology Institute to understand risk factors for cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other major diseases.

“We believe this study will address significant questions shared by our study communities regarding environmental carcinogens and provide valuable resources for population-based research in the future.”

Research is still ongoing with this cohort of approximately 85,000, two-thirds of whom identify as Black. However, for the Southern Environmental Health Study, a new cohort of 50,000 participants will be recruited.

“The Southern Community Cohort Study really laid a solid foundation for us to launch this new project,” Zheng said. “It’s a different cohort study, but certainly it is connected.”

Deploying an Experienced Team

Collaborators on the project include investigators from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and Mount Sinai with expertise in environmental epidemiology and exposure assessment.

“We have a fantastic team and expertise from multiple areas that are essential to do this study,” Zheng said. “For example, we have researchers at Vanderbilt very experienced in community outreach and engagement like Debra Friedman, M.D. and Karen Winkfield, M.D., Ph.D. And we will work closely with investigators from Meharry who have extensive research experience in racial/ethnic minority populations and geospatial work.”

“We believe this study will address significant questions shared by our study communities regarding environmental carcinogens and provide valuable resources for population-based research in the future,” Zheng said.