Research

Our group is at the intersection of genetic, molecular, and environmental epidemiology.  We are interested in how genetic variation influences or alters the effects of environmental exposures and biomarkers on human health and biology.  Areas of ongoing research include (1) telomere length as a biomarker of aging and cancer risk, (2) methods for assessing causal relationships among risk factors, biomarkers, and disease, (3) genome-wide association studies, and (4) susceptibility to the effects of environmental exposure to arsenic, a known carcinogen.  The long-term goals of Dr. Pierce’s work are to understand toxicity mechanisms and disease biology, and to improve our ability to predict disease and target interventions to high-risk sub-populations.

Several ongoing projects are described below:

  • A Study of Telomere Length in an Arsenic-Exposed Bangladeshi Cohort:  Dr. Pierce’s team is leading a study of the effects of arsenic on telomeres, which are critical structures on the ends of human chromosomes that protect against damage that can lead to cancer.  This study will also determine if characteristics of telomeres are associated with arsenic-related health outcomes such as mortality, skin lesions, and skin cancer.
  • Genetics of Arsenic Metabolism: fine mapping and analysis of rare variants:  Susceptibility to arsenic toxicity is partially determined by genetic variants on chromosome 10 which influence individuals’ ability to metabolize arsenic.  Dr. Pierce directs a project that will comprehensively characterize the effects of these variants across three arsenic-exposed population groups (Bangladeshis, American Indians, and European Americans).
  • Telomere Length and Chromosomal Instability Across Various Tissue Types:  Age-related telomere shortening may play a critical role in susceptibility to common age-related diseases, including cancer.  Using tissue samples from the NHGRI’s Gene-Tissue Expression project (GTEx), Dr. Pierce’s team is assessing  correlations among telomere length measurements taken across many cancer-prone tissues and determining if telomere length is correlated with DNA damage as well as inherited genetic variation.
  • Identifying DNA Methylation Features That Underlie Prostate Cancer Disparities:   In light of racial disparities in prostate cancer incidence and mortality in the U.S., Dr. Pierce is leading a project to determine if DNA methylation patterns in prostate tissue differ between African American and Caucasian patients and how such differences are related to clinical features, as well as genetic and environmental factors.  This work will contribute to the identification ethnicity-specific biomarkers for prostate cancer aggressiveness.
  • Identifying Arsenic Susceptibility Variants Using an omics-based Screening Approach:  Dr. Pierce is co-PI of a project focused on identification genetic variants that interact with arsenic exposure to influence arsenic-related health outcomes.  Dr. Pierce’s team is conducting genome-wide screens for such variants, focusing on variants that interact with arsenic to influence molecular (“omic”) phenotypes.

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