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Arnold School of Public Health

ENHS’s Environmental Health and Disease Laboratory wins national award, rises in recognition for its expertise in liver research

December 9, 2015 | Erin Bluvas, 

Saurabh Chatterjee’s Environmental Health and Disease Laboratory, also known as the Chatterjee Lab, was recognized with the Presidential Choice Distinction award by the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD) at their annual international meeting of more than 9,000 attendees in November. The honor placed the work of the Chatterjee Lab among the top 10 percent of more than 2,200 abstracts and research projects submitted from across the globe. “This award, along with various other recognitions our team has earned, is an important milestone for our lab that places us firmly on the national map as an established liver research lab,” Chatterjee says. This level of distinction could take years, if not decades, to achieve. Not at the Chatterjee Lab.

As Chatterjee wrapped up his five-year postdoctoral fellowship with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2011, he knew he faced several challenging obstacles when he decided he wanted to create a world-class laboratory that focuses on both toxicology and liver research and is based in a school of public health. “It’s hard enough for any aspiring professor to establish a lab at a research institution,” Chatterjee says. “In addition, I didn’t have any professional training in clinical liver research myself being a basic scientist, and I wanted to create this lab in a school of public health whereas the vast majority of liver research labs are based in medical schools.”

Taking steps to overcome these barriers, Chatterjee pursued a collaborative venture as a part of his NIH Pathway to Independence program—this time studying gastroenterology, with an emphasis on liver injury and repair, under Anna Mae Diehl at Duke University. Next, he joined the Arnold School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of South Carolina to prove that contrary to tradition, public health provides the perfect context for not only toxicology, but also for liver research.

“One of the interesting things about being in a school of public health is that you have to work in a manner that your research really benefits public health,” says Chatterjee. “The lessons learned from my laboratory can be used by others at the Arnold School for translation and collaboration in the areas of health promotion, epidemiology, exercise science, policy change, etc.” These partnerships benefit his work as well.

“In South Carolina we have one of the highest obesity rates, very high alcohol consumption rates and high liver disease-related death rates,” he says. “This combination of factors provides a very rich environment for doing local research and solving problems right where we live. My colleagues from other departments are going out and collecting information about what’s happening in our communities and bringing that data back to our collaborative projects, which we then integrate into our lab research.”

Having identified his research interests and the best setting for his lab, Chatterjee next turned his attention to what he considers the greatest secret to his lab’s success: passion. He hit the ground running when he arrived at the Arnold School during the fall of 2012, quickly assembling a team of motivated and enthusiastic postdoctoral fellows and graduate students who shared his passion and vision.

“For any new assistant professor to say, ‘I want to establish a recognized liver research lab in four years’ sounds odd and risky, but they believed in me even though they had everything to lose,” he says. However, Chatterjee was wrong in his estimation of how long it would take his lab to join the ranks of the most distinguished toxicology and liver research labs—it only took them three years.

Together, Chatterjee and his team used his NIH Pathway to Independence Award to build the lab in just 2.5 months, with experiments beginning after only three months. “Dr. Ratanesh Seth, our postdoc, and Suvarthi Das, who is now nearing the end of her doctoral program, have played major roles in the day-to-day happenings in the lab and were particularly instrumental during those early days,” Chatterjee says. “Working as a team, we accomplished in two-three months what it takes most labs to accomplish in two-three years. So then I thought, where can we go from here?”

Since then, Chatterjee and his likeminded team have worked tirelessly to perform cutting-edge biomedical research related to liver diseases with a special emphasis on the effects of environmental toxins on these diseases. And then they publish it, and they disseminate it. “We try to learn something even when the results don’t turn out as expected,” Chatterjee says. “There is always a story to tell.”

Over the past three years, the Chatterjee Lab has told its stories through 24 publications, numerous presentations and 18 local and national awards. A number of the awards have been from leading organizations in the field of toxicology, so the most recent distinction from AASLD has been especially validating for the close-knit team that wants to ensure their work is highly regarded in the field of liver research as well.

“Even more than the international distinction, we’re really excited about this recognition establishing us as a flagship liver research lab both in the state and regionally, where we conduct our research and make the greatest impact,” Chatterjee says. The team was one of only ten research labs recognized with this award from the South Eastern United States.

As if they needed more positive affirmation for their pioneering approach, the Chatterjee Lab was the only public health-based lab to win one of the Presidential Choice Distinction awards out of the thousands of submissions. “If you look at our peers who also received the award, they are supported by medical schools and government-based agencies and have been classical liver research labs for years,” he points out.

The Chatterjee Lab model of focusing on both toxicology and liver research in a public health setting has certainly proven effective. So has their philosophy of letting their passion for this work drive them to conduct and disseminate their research at a rapid, yet thorough, pace. What’s next for the group? “We’d like to continue growing and expanding our research,” Chatterjee says. One option involves establishing a Gulf War Illness Center that builds upon the extensively researched effects of chemical exposures on the brain to examine the impact of these toxins on gastroenterology and metabolic syndrome.

Such a project would effectively combine the lab’s focus on toxicology and liver research yet again to positively impact the health of South Carolinians and beyond. And that’s why these awards are important to Chatterjee and his team. “It’s not only a confirmation of what we believe in—of what we’re passionate about,” he says. “Being recognized by every sphere of the top researchers from across the nation and the world serves as a vetting system that will allow us to continue with this important work.”