Esteban Ramirez, a student from Pima County JTED, a technical education program for high school students, bumps fists with Nathan Cherrington, PhD (right), director of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center, at a January tour of his lab in the R. Ken Coit College of Pharmacy.
Tucked away in the R. Ken Coit College of Pharmacy, the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center (SWEHSC) might be one of the best-kept collaboration secrets at the University of Arizona Health Sciences.
Founded nearly 30 years ago, SWEHSC (pronounced swee-sic) is part of a national program funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Institutes of Health to facilitate research on environmental exposures tied to health.
SWEHSC has been led by Nathan Cherrington, PhD, since 2015. The center’s interdisciplinary nature of research and mentorship between new and veteran investigators serves as a career-development service and learning opportunity for both, said Paloma Beamer, PhD, a professor at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and co-director of SWEHSC’s Community Engagement Core with Ben Richmond, MPH.
Many SWEHSC researchers are involved in studies through the BIO5 Institute, UArizona Cancer Center, UArizona Superfund Research Program, UArizona Institute for Resilient Environments and Societies (AIRES), Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and Pima County Health Department.
The center recently helped develop a report and informational webpage for Pima County Health on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals.” That PFAS study is connected to ongoing firefighter health safety work led by Jeffrey Burgess, MD, MS, MPH, a professor in the Zuckerman College of Public Health and co-leader, with Melissa Furlong, PhD, of SWEHSC research on Environmental Exposures in Underserved Southwest Populations.
Dr. Beamer also collaborates with Wayne Morgan, MD, and Fernando Martinez, MD, in the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson’s Department of Pediatrics and UArizona Health Sciences’ Asthma and Airway Disease Research Center, respectively, and Karletta Chief, PhD, in the UArizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Environmental Science and AIRES’ Indigenous Resilience Center. In each case, SWEHSC helps bring different skillsets to the table to advance the research.
For Dr. Chief, it involved ongoing sampling in support of the Gold King Mine Spill Study, for which she and Dr. Beamer were principal investigators, as well as human subjects issues related to another study Dr. Chief is doing with the Zuckerman College of Public Health’s Stephanie Russo Carroll, DrPH, MPH, on COVID-19, the Navajo Nation and environmental exposures.
Dr. Martinez’ help involved how to get dust samples from homes in Nogales, Sonora, across the U.S.-Mexico border for the Binational Early Asthma and Microbiome Study.
“You can’t get more senior than Wayne Morgan, one of the founders of the Tucson Children’s Respiratory Study,” Dr. Beamer said. “The idea that I’m saying, ‘Because you have a SWEHSC pilot project, Dean Billheimer, PhD, is going to do your statistical analysis’ – this just blew his mind. So, it’s a way for senior investigators to go in new directions in relation to environmental health, which I think is really cool.”
Dr. Billheimer’s roots with SWEHSC go back to 2011. He’s the center’s deputy director and a professor of biostatistics in the Zuckerman College of Public Health. He also is co-director of SWEHSC’s Integrative Health Sciences Facility Core and director of its Data Science Resource, two of six facility cores and resources at the center.
“Our core mission is to conduct innovative research and community engagement to understand the mechanisms underlying environmental health risks and disease among people living in semi-arid environments undergoing climate change,” he said.
Those last three words, “undergoing climate change,” were added in the center’s most recent funding renewal in 2022, Dr. Cherrington said, stressing that they are critical to how SWEHSC’s mission has evolved. Whatever climate lessons that can be learned here can be applied to arid areas elsewhere, he hopes.
“We're sort of an incubator,” he said. “There are 2.2 billion people across the globe who live in arid lands, much like what we have here in the Southwest. So much of the world is either in arid lands, or they're going to become so. If you're not going to sink into the ocean, you're likely going to become more like us.”
Dr. Billheimer noted Arizona is home to diverse populations, including Latinx, Native American and rural communities, that face unique environmental exposures such as arsenic in some drinking water, high dust and mine waste.Ray Hau, PhD, (center) a postdoctoral research fellow, talks to JTED students about strategies using artificial intelligence to select new drug therapies that can cross biological barriers.
“We're going to support the communities that live here and are more impacted disproportionately by climate change and the environment,” Dr. Beamer added.
Examples of people who’ve come up in part through SWEHSC include Monica Yellowhair, PhD, the outreach and tribal relations director at the UArizona Cancer Center, and Zelieann Craig, PhD, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ assistant dean for research.
Dr. Yellowhair participated in one of SWEHSC’s summer programs as a student, while Dr. Craig received pilot and career development funds from SWEHSC. She has been a center member since 2013 and now serves on its internal advisory board and career development council and co-director of the IRTH facility core.
“SWEHSC is very strong in both population- and lab-based discovery research and has established some of the strongest, most important relationships with communities of a variety of backgrounds in the Southwest,” Dr. Craig said. “Nobody else on campus is looking at the intersection of the environment and human health from this many angles.”
Xinxin Ding, PhD, head of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the Coit College of Pharmacy, chairs SWEHSC’s pilot project program and is director of the Inhalation Exposure Resource. He credits the center’s success to Dr. Cherrington’s leadership, saying, “He is the glue that holds everyone together.”
The College of Medicine – Tucson’s Julie Ledford, PhD, who has been involved in SWEHSC research since 2017 and is co-leader with Dr. Ding of SWEHSC’s Environmental Lung Diseases Research Focus Group, said, “The numbers speak for themselves.”
In the past decade, the center’s pilot project program invested just under $1.5 million, resulting in almost $58.4 million in total National Institutes of Health awards, including 11 R01 grants, six R21s, two R35s, two P01s, and one each of U54, P42, P50, R03, R56 and K99/R00 awards. That’s a total return on investment of 40:1, said Dr. Cherrington, who also is the Coit College of Pharmacy’s associate dean for research and head of the Center for Toxicology, which includes pre- and post-doctoral training on environmental toxicology.
“Over the last five years, UArizona Health Sciences has increased its research expenditures by 58%,” Dr. Cherrington added. “The 54 center members who are part of the Health Sciences – as most of us are – we’ve increased our research expenditures by 420%. As someone from UArizona Research Administration recently said about us, ‘Have you seen their data? They’re killing it!’”
Article originally appeared in Health Sciences Connect.