By Rebecca Roybal Jones

Elemental Research

UNM College of Pharmacy Lands Five-Year $11.5 Million Grant to Fund Center for Metals in Biology and Medicine

UNM scientist Matt Campen, PhD, a Regent’s Professor in the UNM College of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, recently received a five-year, $11.5 million grant to research metals – as contaminants, medicines or nutrients – and how they affect the body’s health.

The UNM Center for Metals in Biology and Medicine will allow scientists to study health outcomes of exposure to metal contaminants and is structured to help young faculty obtain independent research funding. The Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence grant is funded by the National Institute for General Medical Sciences.

The research conducted through the center will focus on how metals affect New Mexico communities, Campen says. For example, are there legacy wastes from mining? Are there occupational diseases in former miners that were related to inhalation or ingestion of metals?

Researchers will also study the benefits of metals. While some metals are harmful to the body, others have nutritional and healthful value, Campen says. Supplements such as zinc and iron can affect disease outcomes in patients with diabetes or hypertension.

Matt Campen, PhD

“If you start there, that would fit beautifully with what we want to accomplish as a center, because we’ll be able to measure the metals and show the distribution throughout the body and show that a given metal nutrient is really working,” Campen says. “The resources in our center can help complement those studies that really do have a direct impact on our population in the state.”

The team may also take part in researching “drugs as nanoparticles and using these nano-constructs that might have iron, copper or silver and using them to deliver other drugs to specific areas of the body,” Campen says.

The center provides funding to junior faculty to help develop their careers within the College of Pharmacy and the School of Medicine, he adds.

Some projects that are currently under way include:

  • Alicia Bolt, PhD, is studying whether tungsten can promote cancer metastasis, which may be a concern for military personnel with shrapnel lodged in their body for long periods of time.
  • A study by Xiang Xue, PhD, is looking at how tumor cells in the colon use iron to control metabolism.
  • Dr. Rama Gullapalli, MD, PhD, will be studying how cadmium can promote gallbladder cancer, which is more prevalent in New Mexico’s Native American population than in the rest of the country.
  • Xixi Zhou, PhD, will study how arsenic can cause specific patterns of DNA damage and mutation in lung cancer.

“Metals are such an important facet of biology and they’re essential in our diets and our medicines and there are toxicants we sometimes can avoid in our lives,” Campen says. “There are so many areas that this topic touches on.”

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