March 23-24, 2000

ITEM 106-1001-R0300 Approval of Proposal to Establish a Center for Environmental Health Sciences; The University of Montana-Missoula

THAT: The Board of Regents of Higher Education authorizes The University of Montana-Missoula to establish a Center for Environmental Health Sciences that will focus on improvements in public health through research and dissemination of information on mechanisms of human diseases caused by toxic agents in the environment.

EXPLANATION: The University of Montana is in the process of establishing national prominence in the environmental sciences. The State of Montana EPSCoR has identified environmental sciences as one of three focus disciplines. Through a combination of organized centers, graduate programs, analytical facilities, and individual laboratories, The University of Montana will develop productive and competitive research efforts in environmental chemistry, contaminant monitoring and biomarkers, and environmental microbiology. The proposed Center will add to this with a focus on human health.

The primary research mission of the Center consists of advancing knowledge of environmental impacts on human health. The Center will provide a focal point bringing a critical mass of researchers together to investigate mechanisms of human diseases such as asthma, lung fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, autoimmune disorders, neurodegenerative diseases, cancers, and the impacts that environmental factors have in causing or exacerbating these conditions. These studies will lead to new or better treatments, better assessment of the actual risks caused by environmental agents, and improved methods to reduce the adverse health impacts of these agents on human health.

Three major focus areas of the Centerís research have been identified. Respiratory/Immunotoxicology will investigate the health effects of agents on the respiratory tract and alterations of the immune system. An example of this research focus includes the adverse health effects of particulate matter on childhood asthma. Asthma, a disease associated with hyperactivity of one part of the immune system, will require expertise not only in respiratory diseases, but also immunology.

A second area is neurotoxicology. Evidence exists that a number of neurological diseases such as Parkinsonís and Alzheimerís, may have an environmental component. This focus area will draw upon and complement the existing strength in neurosciences within the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Furthermore, many agents reported to affect the respiratory and immune system also affect the nervous system and may operate by similar mechanisms. One class of these agents includes metals, identified as one of the most important classes of toxic agents by the Environmental Protection Agency has particular relevance to the State of Montanaís environmental concerns.

The third research focus area of the Center is Molecular and Genetic Toxicology. This area includes studies of the mechanisms of the development of cancers and improving our understanding of the genetic basis (polymorphisms in genes may cause differential responses to environmental exposures) for the development of various human diseases including cancers. These studies will take advantage of the increasing knowledge of the human genome and genetic linkages of human disease.

These three focus areas have been selected for a number of reasons. First, only a limited number of areas can be targeted for effective study. Second, there is enough synergy among these three areas that there will be good interactions among the investigators. Third, these areas take advantage of existing strengths at The University of Montana and surrounding research groups. Finally, these areas address the toxic agents and diseases of greatest concern in the State of Montana. Consequently, this Center will be an important resource for the State.

The Centerís teaching efforts will focus on establishing and supporting programs such as toxicology and environmental health in the undergraduate and graduate curriculums and be responsible for training a new generation of talented investigators to continue these efforts. In addition, the Center will institute programs in public outreach and community service. These programs, such as lay classes, newsletters, Web-based information, and hot-line information, will provide much needed communication and dissemination of accurate information to the public-at-large. The Centerís efforts will also bring new discoveries that will be translated into economic growth for Montana through new biotechnology. This Center will also interface and integrate with other related centers being developed at The University of Montana, including The Center for Environmental Monitoring and The Environmental Management and Policy Center.

The Center will be established and supported by a combination of federal and University funding. The majority of funding for the Centerís continuing activities will be obtained from Federal Agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and Department of Defense. Funding will also be sought from private agencies such as the American Lung Association, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and when possible, from private donors and interested industries. No new State of Montana resources will be required for Center operations.