Lu receives NIH award to study microbiome, arsenic metabolism link

Kun Lu, assistant professor of environmental health science at the University of Georgia College of Public Health, is one of six outstanding early-career scientists selected nationwide to receive an Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

Part of the National Institutes of Health, the NIEHS created the award in 2006 to provide a foundation for exceptional early stage researchers interested in discovering how our environment influences human health.

The 5-year, $2.3 million grant will fund Lu’s research examining the interaction between the gut microbiome and arsenic, a widespread environmental pollutant and known human carcinogen. The work could lead to a better understanding of the role the body’s microscopic communities play in influencing arsenic-related diseases.

“Arsenic is a very harmful chemical that can not only induce many types of cancer, but has recently been associated with cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorders, such as diabetes,” Lu said.

Arsenic is a natural element that can be found in rocks and soil, water, air, and in plants and animals. It can also be released into the environment from some agricultural and industrial sources.

The greatest threat of exposure comes from contaminated groundwater. While the problem is particularly serious in countries located in Southeast Asia and South America, arsenic poisoning remains a significant public health issue in the United States.

“It is estimated that more than 20 million people in the U.S are drinking water with arsenic levels about the EPA standard of 10 ppb,” said Lu. “This is because a lot of people use private well water, which is not regulated by EPA, for their daily needs.”

Although scientists are still in the early stages of exploring the gut microbiome, a growing body of research has found that the trillions of microbes living in the intestine may have a profound effect on human health.

Lu’s past research has shown that the changes in the makeup of the gut microbiome, caused either by bacterial infection or a change in host genetics, significantly affects arsenic metabolism. His new research will further explore how the specific composition of the gut microbiome may serve as a risk factor for an individual’s susceptibility to environmental chemicals, such as arsenic.

“Studies have indicated that a dysregulated microbiome contributes in a significant way to a variety of human diseases, from inflammatory bowel disease to heart disease,” said Lu. “Our work is novel because, rather than focusing on the disease condition, we are using an integrated biology approach to understand how the microbiome community influences chemical toxicity.”

Lu joined the College of Public Health in 2012 as an assistant professor in environmental health sciences. He completed a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2009 followed by postdoctoral fellowships at both UNC-CH and the Department of Biological Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

His interdisciplinary collaborators on this project are Travis Glenn, associate professor of environmental health science at the UGA College of Public Health, and Rebecca Fry, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Additional coverage on ASPPH Friday Letter.

Posted July 6, 2015.