CORVALLIS - Oregon State University has received a five-year, $2.1 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that will fund the university's Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Sciences Center through March of 2009.
The center is one of only four biomedical centers in the U.S. focusing on aquatic research, and it is instrumental in fundamental studies of cancer and other diseases.
"The funding is welcome news because we were up against stiff competition, including Harvard, Yale, MIT, Duke and others," said David Williams, director of the OSU center. "But we're involved in some exciting things and our researchers bring in an additional $5 million annually in research grants, so the quality of the center's work was apparent."
The NIEHS is a branch of the National Institutes of Health.
The Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Sciences Center was established in 1985, focusing on the use of rainbow trout as a model to study cancer tumors. Those studies remain a critical part of the center's mission, Williams said, and it also has branched into studies of neurotoxicology.
William Gerwick, associate director of the center, has become a world leader in the investigation of marine organisms for their anti-cancer and anti-viral properties. Gerwick's research team recently discovered a compound from a blue-green alga in Panama that causes nerve regeneration activity.
"It is an exciting find, but it is very, very preliminary," Gerwick cautioned. "We were collecting specimens in early June and one of the compounds we extracted in our bio-screening showed neuron regeneration activity that was very strong - it was as active as some of our positive controls."
Another neurotoxicology researcher affiliated with the center is Phil McFadden, who studies how certain fish change color when exposed to toxicants. Such behavior likely developed as a defense mechanism for the fish, but could be invaluable in serving as an early detection indicator for humans in a wide range of areas, including toxic chemicals.
McFadden's research is funded by the Department of Defense.
Another scientist, Robert Tanguay, has brought a major research project to the university with his study of zebrafish, a species that is an excellent model for developmental toxicology because they reach sexual maturity in a matter of weeks, instead of two years as in trout. The zebrafish genome also has been sequenced. Tanguay uses zebrafish as a model for his studies of fetal alcohol syndrome.
Donald Buhler also uses zebrafish for his basic studies on cancer tumors. Buhler received national attention five years ago when his study of flavonoids determined that hops - a key ingredient in beer - had anti-cancer properties.
Larry Curtis, head of the Department of Molecular and Environmental Toxicology at OSU, also works with the center. A well-known toxicologist, he is close to completing a study on the effects of pollutants in the Newberg pool of the Willamette River outside of Salem. He and his research team are scheduled to present the findings of those efforts to the legislature next spring.
Rainbow trout are still an important part of the center's work and researcher George Bailey, the first director of the center, is completing a major study on cancer that should be published in 2004.
"It could have major implications in a regulatory sense," Williams said, "but it is premature to talk about the findings right now."
Bailey also recently completed a clinical study in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in which the researchers discovered that inexpensive daily supplements of chlorophyllin can reduce DNA damage caused by aflatoxin contamination. Aflatoxins are known carcinogens produced by a fungus that contaminates corn, peanuts and soybeans, and are a major cause of liver cancer in China and other countries.
The first benefits of chlorophyllin were discovered by Bailey in his work with rainbow trout. His study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Bailey, Williams and Rod Dashwood, a researcher at OSU's Linus Pauling Institute, are collaborating on a three-pronged study funded by the National Cancer Institute. While Bailey continues to study the use of chlorophyllin in reducing DNA damage, Williams is seeing if similar proactive measures can help in the protection of fetuses in pregnant animals. Dashwood is evaluating the effect of green and white teas in the prevention of colon cancer.
"While research is the primary thrust of the center's work, we also are heavily involved in community outreach and education," Williams said. "We partner with the Environmental Health Sciences Center at OSU, which also is funded by NIEHS."
Among their efforts is a K-12 education initiative called the Hydroville project, directed by Kendra Mingo, in which students in the fictional town of Hydroville tackle real life environmental and health issues. The center also works closely with the Science and Math Investigative Learning Experience (SMILE) program for minority and rural youths.
OSU is the only university in the nation with two fully funded NIEHS centers, Williams said.