North­eastern Uni­ver­sity has received a five-​​year, $13.5 mil­lion award from the National Insti­tutes of Health to con­tinue its inter­dis­ci­pli­nary inves­ti­ga­tion into the com­plex rela­tion­ship between envi­ron­mental con­t­a­m­i­na­tion and preterm birth.

The multi-​​university research team pre­vi­ously received a $10 mil­lion NIH National Insti­tute of Envi­ron­mental Health Sci­ences’ Super­fund Research Pro­gram grant in 2010 to estab­lish the Puerto Rico Test­site for Exploring Con­t­a­m­i­na­tion Threats (PROTECT) Center. The latest grant from the NIH will fund the next phase of a study of the extent to which expo­sure to com­monly found chem­i­cals, such as phtha­lates, is related to the extremely high preterm birthrate in Puerto Rico.

An aca­d­emic research enter­prise is at its best when it can bring the brightest and most inno­v­a­tive minds together to solve real prob­lems that will make a dif­fer­ence in people’s lives—whether that impact is local or halfway across the world,” said Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs. “The sup­port of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is crit­ical to achieve our goals and to advance sci­en­tific research across disciplines.”

Puerto Rico’s preterm birthrate is about 17 per­cent. At 50 per­cent above the U.S. average, it is the highest rate of any U.S. juris­dic­tion and below only Malawi (18.1 per­cent) glob­ally. Puerto Rico also has many “Super­fund” sites—locations iden­ti­fied as high-​​risk for the public by the Envi­ron­mental Pro­tec­tion Agency—in addi­tion to more than 200 poten­tial haz­ardous waste sites throughout the island.

Over the past three years, the team has doc­u­mented sig­nif­i­cant con­t­a­m­i­na­tion in the study areas and com­pelling pre­lim­i­nary asso­ci­a­tions between con­t­a­m­i­nants and preterm birth.

We’ve seen exten­sive con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, and women in the study area have been exposed to higher con­cen­tra­tions than those in the U.S.,” said Akram Alshawabkeh, PROTECT’s prin­cipal inves­ti­gator and a pro­fessor of civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering at Northeastern.

PROTECT uses a holistic system of research, training and stakeholder engagement to study contaminant exposure and its connection to preterm birth in Puerto Rico and beyond.

PROTECT uses a holistic system of research, training and stake­holder engage­ment to study con­t­a­m­i­nant expo­sure and its con­nec­tion to preterm birth in Puerto Rico and beyond.

While the team’s research focuses on sites in Puerto Rico, the work has global impli­ca­tions. According to Alshawabkeh, reducing preterm birth rates will help save lives and min­i­mize the esca­lating costs of health­care. Preterm birth is the second leading cause of death in chil­dren under the age of 5 world­wide and the leading cause of peri­natal and infant mor­tality in the U.S.

This recog­ni­tion by NIEHS enhances the college’s rep­u­ta­tion and capa­bility for inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research, as well as demon­strating our lead­er­ship in addressing impor­tant soci­etal issues,” said Nadine Aubry, dean of Northeastern’s Col­lege of Engineering.

In addi­tion to an epi­demi­o­log­ical study that tracks the envi­ron­mental expo­sures of 1,800 preg­nant women, PROTECT’s research projects include iden­ti­fying tox­i­co­logic expla­na­tions for the con­nec­tion between expo­sure and preterm birth; iden­ti­fying xeno­bi­otics (for­eign chem­ical sub­stances) that con­tribute to preterm birth; exam­ining ground­water sys­tems to under­stand how and where con­t­a­m­i­nants are trans­ported; and devel­oping sus­tain­able, solar-​​powered, and environmentally-​​friendly tech­nolo­gies for the reme­di­a­tion of con­t­a­m­i­nated groundwater.

PROTECT—which includes North­eastern, the Uni­ver­sity of Puerto Rico, and the Uni­ver­sity of Michigan—is co-​​directed by Alshawabkeh and Jose F. Cordero, dean of the Grad­uate School of Public Health at the Uni­ver­sity of Puerto Rico. The inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team includes fac­ulty mem­bers from Northeastern’s Col­lege of Engi­neering, Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, and Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties. To sup­port its mis­sion, PROTECT also engages with gov­ern­ment agen­cies and non­profit orga­ni­za­tions such as March of Dimes and the Silent Spring Institute.

The project’s inter­dis­ci­pli­nary focus, Alshawabkeh said, is crit­ical to its suc­cess. The research team includes engi­neers, chemists, health sci­en­tists, and tox­i­col­o­gists, and its work includes con­ducting studies, devel­oping new tech­nolo­gies, and iden­ti­fying strate­gies for pol­i­cy­makers to address the problem.

When you look into a problem from only one spe­cific dis­ci­pline, you’re solving one part of it,” Alshawabkeh said. “But the prob­lems we’re facing as a society today are multi-​​layered. This team is working together to facil­i­tate a greater under­standing of this problem from many levels and iden­tify diverse ways to solve it.”

Students from University of Puerto Rico work in the field as part of the PROTECT Center's research.

Stu­dents from Uni­ver­sity of Puerto Rico work in the field as part of the PROTECT Center’s research.