By Leslie Ridgeway

Could air pollution make you fat? Keck Medicine of USC researchers received funding to investigate the hypothesis that children who live near busy roadways may be exposed to air pollution that causes inflammation, leading to obesity and other health problems.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have granted $7.8 million to Keck Medicine’s Southern California Children’s Environmental Health Center (SC-CEHC) over the next five years. Three teams of scientists will mine data from previous research and conduct new studies on near-roadway air pollution’s role in the development of obesity and metabolic abnormalities that may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. The SC-CEHC is directed by Rob McConnell, MD, professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

“This study examines a unique data set — 12,000 children who have been followed from elementary school through high school graduation as part of the USC Children’s Health Study,” McConnell said.

The SC-CEHC investigators have proposed three new research projects:

  • The first project, headed by Frank Gilliland, MD, PhD, professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School, will focus on the impact of exposure to near-roadway pollution across the life span of Children’s Health Study participants. His team will also examine the relationship of these exposures to the distribution of fat in the body of overweight study participants and to early markers of diabetes.
  • The second project, headed by McConnell, builds on the first by investigating the effects of lifetime exposure to air pollution on inflammatory and metabolic markers in fat and on the expression pattern of genes in fat in a subset of young adults in the first project.
  • The third project, headed by Hooman Allayee, PhD, associate professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School, will investigate the critical air pollution exposure times and sequence of events from development during pregnancy to maturity that leads to obesity and metabolic abnormalities in an obesity and diabetes mouse model.

“Our team has the broad knowledge in children’s environmental health, obesity, and diabetes needed to conduct this complex research,” McConnell said. “In addition, an education program will provide outreach and information on study results that are relevant for science-based interventions and policy to community and other groups interested in obesity prevention.”

The SC-CEHC will work in partnership with the USC Diabetes and Obesity Research Institute (DORI), directed by Michael Goran, PhD, of the Keck School. DORI researchers will conduct the examinations.

The research grant numbers are 1P01ES022845-01(NIEHS) and RD83544101 (EPA).