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EPA research grant funds Rodrigues, Liu work on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
Stephen Greenwell
Debora Rodrigues, Ezekiel Cullen Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
Debora Rodrigues, Ezekiel Cullen Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday $7.7 million in research grant funding to improve risk assessment of chemical mixtures in the environment, which includes $749,926 for research by Debora Rodrigues, Ezekiel Cullen Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and her co-PI, Dr. Xinli Liu, Associate Professor of Pharmaceutics.

Rodrigues' research is one of 11 proposals funded by the EPA. Other institutions include Georgia Tech, Purdue, Texas A&M and the University of North Carolina.

“Protecting public health is an essential part of EPA’s mission,” said Chris Frey, Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “The research announced today will advance the science for evaluating mixtures of chemicals and their toxicity so we can better understand the human health impacts, and ultimately, better protect public health.”

The research, “Oral toxicity assessment of PAH mixtures using an in vitro 3D cell culture bioreactor mimicking the in vivo intestinal tract environment,” runs through August 2023. It can be read here.

According to a research description provided by Rodrigues, “Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) ubiquitous presence in the environment is a severe public health concern as many of them are known to be carcinogenic to humans. PAHs can enter the human body either through inhalation or consumption of contaminated food. The latter represents the most common mechanism of PAHs intake (2-500 ng/day) but has not received much attention. Current approaches to understanding the toxicology of environmental contaminants usually require in vivo experimentations with different animals. Still, they do not necessarily translate to actual human responses, can be expensive, laborious, and is of low throughput, especially for a large class of toxicants such as PAHs. To address this limitation, the objective of this study is to design and engineer an in vitro 3-Dimensional (3D) cell culture integrated into a flow-cell bioreactor to conduct the toxicological assessment of environmental PAH mixtures that can be found in food.”

The objective of the work will be “incorporating 3D cell culturing techniques in a bioreactor with a controlled temperature, growth conditions, and flow of nutrient media will induce growth and alter cell behavior like an in vivo intestinal tract environment, providing an efficient and realistic model to understand PAH mixtures health risk.” Dr. Liu’s group will assist in validating this new approach in animal model.

This is the first EPA grant awarded to the University of Houston since 2007, and only the eighth since 1996. Earlier this year, Rodrigues was chosen as an NSF program director, and through 2018 she has earned more than $5.5 million in grant funding from major organizations.

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