NIH Awards $1.2 Million to Arkansas Children’s Research Institute

Pediatric researchers at Arkansas Children’s Research Institute (ACRI) have received more than $1.2 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a five-year study that looks at the impacts of exposure to trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent and common environmental pollutant.

TCE has contaminated many of the water systems in the U.S. and is among the most frequently detected U.S. EPA-regulated drinking water contaminant found in groundwater and surface water sources as well as Superfund sites, which are contaminated by hazardous materials. When TCE enters the body, it takes the form of its major metabolite (TCAH). The study will use this metabolite to test how TCE may alter immune cells associated with autoimmune disorders in humans.

Sarah Blossom, PhD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) College of Medicine, is the principal investigator for the project, which will continue through December of 2024. She aims to uncover how TCE alters novel gene or epigenetic patterns in CD4 cells that may be responsible for these immune disorders.

“Exposure to environmental pollutants in our environment is common and can have significant health impacts on both children and adults. Our ultimate goal would be to use the findings to identify pathways for targeted therapy that would normalize immune responses in TCE-exposed individuals,” said Blossom.

Blossom’s past work has shown that the CD4+ T cell is central to autoimmune pathology. CD4+ T cells can become pro-inflammatory effector cells, which, once activated by TCAH, lead to autoimmunity and possibly other hypersensitivity disorders such as allergy.

Blossom and her team will study how TCAH alters CD4 cells. This study will use both in vitro (testing in tubes) and in vivo (testing on living organisms) methods to determine if TCAH promotes either the differentiation of pathogenic effector cells or decreases the expansion of effector cells that are associated with the suppression of autoimmunity.

By comparing CD4s in both autoimmune-prone and -resistant strains of mice, Blossom hopes to better understand the contribution of genetic susceptibility factors in autoimmune and inflammatory disorders.

Blossom, an expert in the immunotoxicity of TCE, is the principal investigator on an NIH career development award and is working to define the role of the TCE on the CD4+ T cell in how it may promote oxidative stress and epigenetic alterations. She has also served as the principal investigator on studies funded by NIH and the Arkansas Biosciences Institute. Blossom is a scientific technical advisor for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry-Camp LeJeune Community Assistance Panel at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Blossom is also working with investigators from epidemiology in the UAMS College of Public Health and from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the UAMS College of Medicine assessing how maternal inflammation may alter infant outcome in diabetic pregnancy.

In 2019, Arkansas Children's Research Institute scientists received $7.3 million in funding from NIH, and total federal support for their projects reached $16.7 million.