Dr. Trevor Penning, the Thelma Brown and Henry Charles Molinoff Professor of Pharmacology, is a professor of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics at the University of Pennsylvania and has been the Director of the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology (CEET) since its founding in 2006. He formulated the strategic vision of the CEET from its inception and built the environmental health science identity of the CEET at the University, regional, and national level.
As Director of the CEET, Dr. Penning has focused the center’s research around the connections between human disease and environmental exposures and emphasized the importance of using this research to mitigate health impacts on vulnerable communities both locally and globally.
Throughout his time as Director, Dr. Penning has focused his research on the connections between human health and anthropogenic pollution. Air pollution is responsible for more than 200,000 deaths globally each year and has been identified as a known human carcinogen by the World Health Organization.
Most recently, his research has been focused on the effects of air pollution from a cancer perspective. This research involves examining the components of air pollutants to determine how they may cause cancer in humans. One of the major classes of pollutants Dr. Penning and his team are currently studying is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are a class of chemicals that are produced when coal, oil, gas, wood, garbage, and tobacco are burned. PAHs generated from these sources can bind to or form small particles in the air. These particles can be small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs, including cells that get transformed as a result of lung cancer.
Dr. Penning’s research team has been working to uncover the mechanism by which PAHs are activated. The particular compounds his team are working with are found in diesel exhaust. Diesel exhaust is classified as a Group 1 human carcinogen by the WHO, and because of this these are compounds of great concern. Limiting exposure to diesel exhaust and PAHs is one strategy to limit risk of lung cancer and other negative health effects.
With this research, Dr. Penning and his team are hoping to be able to identify populations most at risk for exposure to PAHs and then also understand how the genes involved in the activation of these compounds differ in exposure groups. To do this, they must first identify the genes involved in the activation at PAHs, which is no easy task. In doing this, they will be able to analyze how chronic exposure to these carcinogens impact susceptibility and, further, how mutations in these genes could potentially increase or decrease susceptibility to these compounds.