News Release

$3.4 million grant will fund study of how early-life exposure to SVOCs affects immune function

Environmental toxins found in household products might impair transfer of immunity protection from mother to child during pregnancy

Grant and Award Announcement

Duke University

DURHAM, N.C. – Kate Hoffman, an assistant research professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, has received a $3.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the impact of early-life exposures to semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) on neonatal and early childhood immune function.

SVOCs are long-lasting chemical compounds widely used as additives or coatings in many household products, including plastics, flooring, electronics, furniture and building materials. They can be released into indoor air and dust through normal wear and tear, resulting in human exposure.

Previous studies have linked early-life exposure to SVOCs to a wide range of health concerns, including neurodevelopmental delays, obesity, endocrine and thyroid disruptions, and respiratory disorders.

Some lab studies on animals have suggested links to immune system impairment as well, but it’s unclear how applicable those findings are to human populations, particularly since the studies only looked at exposure to individual SVOCs, not mixes of them, which is how it exposure happens in real life, Hoffman said.

Her research, funded by the NIH’s new Stephen L. Katz Early-Stage Investigator Research Grant program, should help shed light on the matter.

“This study will be the first to evaluate the role of SVOCs in altering infants’ immune protections. We plan to evaluate the two most critical aspects of early-life immune function: passive transfer of immunity from the mother during pregnancy, and the capacity to respond to a novel pathogen-associated antigen,” Hoffman said. “Understanding this will fill a large gap in our knowledge of SVOC health impacts.”

Using data and biospecimens collected through the Duke Children’s Health and Discovery Initiative’s “HOPE 1000” study of expectant mothers and infants, Hoffman and her team will track SVOC exposure, immune system functioning and pathogen immunity during each trimester of pregnancy and in early childhood.

“Being able to identify specific SVOCs or mixture of SVOCs that affect immunity could lead to new preventive measures and interventions at the individual and policy levels, which is critical as the use of some SVOCs is projected to grow in coming years,” she said.

Hoffman earned her PhD from Boston University in 2010 and joined the Nicholas School’s environmental health and toxicology faculty in 2015. She received the 2018 Joan M. Daisey Outstanding Young Scientist Award from the International Society of Exposure Science in recognition of her prolific research, which includes nearly 80 peer-reviewed studies so far.

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