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NIH Awards ACHRI Nearly $1 Million to Study Link Between Water Pollutant and Autoimmune Diseases

LITTLE ROCK, AR. (April 6, 2010) – A pollutant common in American water systems may have been increasing people’s risk of autoimmune disease for years, and now with a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) scientists believe they may be able to determine how.

Kathleen Gilbert, PhD, and her lab have received a three-year grant worth more than $997,000 from NIH to investigate how chronic low exposure to trichloroethylene (TCE) affects T-cells and contributes to the development of diseases like lupus, scleroderma and autoimmune hepatitis.

"We know that it takes a combination of genetic and environmental factors to trigger these autoimmune diseases," said Gilbert, principal investigator of the ACHRI study and an associate professor of Microbiology and Immunology in the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) College of Medicine. "Beyond that, there isn’t much certainty about why they develop."

TCE is an industrial solvent accidentally introduced to water supplies decades ago through improper disposal. It is still present in many sources of ground water, some of which are used for drinking in the United States. Studies have shown that TCE can be detected in as much as 10 percent of the American population that is not exposed to TCE in the workplace. Because TCE has a very short life once inside the human body, scientists believe that true exposure levels are much higher.

If the ACHRI team is able to figure out how TCE contributes to autoimmune disorders in humans, there could be potential for suggesting limits on the amount of the pollutant that is allowed in water supplies. Better yet, the research could lay the groundwork for developing a treatment that could neutralize TCE’s contribution to autoimmune disease and possibly even reverse some of the disorders’ effects. Children’s immune systems seem particularly sensitive to the effects of toxicant exposure even if the consequences are not detected until later in life.

"If we can’t prevent this process that leads to autoimmune disease, maybe we can at least counteract it," Gilbert said. "Improving people’s lives by reducing these debilitating disorders is our ultimate goal."

Gilbert’s past research has proven the link between TCE and autoimmune diseases. These disorders develop when a process involving T cells, which typically protects against infection, instead attacks self tissue.

Preliminary studies to support the project were funded in part by the Arkansas Biosciences Institute, the major research component of the Tobacco Settlement Proceeds Act of 2000.

Arkansas Children’s Hospital is the only pediatric medical center in Arkansas and one of the largest in the United States serving children. The campus spans 28 city blocks and houses 316 beds, a staff of approximately 500 physicians, 80 residents in pediatrics and pediatric specialties and more than 4,000 employees. The private, nonprofit healthcare facility boasts an internationally renowned reputation for medical breakthroughs and intensive treatments, unique surgical procedures and forward-thinking medical research - all dedicated to fulfilling our mission of enhancing, sustaining and restoring children's health and development. ACH recently ranked No. 85 on FORTUNE 100 Best Companies to Work For®. For more information, visit www.archildrens.org .

ACHRI provides a research environment on the ACH campus to meet the needs of the UAMS faculty. Research scientists at ACHRI conduct clinical, basic science, and health services research for the purpose of treating illnesses, preventing disease and improving the health of children everywhere.

UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with five colleges, a graduate school, a new 540,000-square-foot hospital, six centers of excellence and a statewide network of regional centers. UAMS has 2,652 students and 733 medical residents. Its centers of excellence include the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, the Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, the Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy, the Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, the Psychiatric Research Institute and the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging. It is the state’s largest public employer with more than 10,000 employees, including nearly 1,150 physicians who provide medical care to patients at UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the VA Medical Center and UAMS’ Area Health Education Centers throughout the state. Visit www.uams.edu or www.uamshealth.com .

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