CAPE ELIZABETH – Researcher and scientist John Wise of Cape Elizabeth, who runs the Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology at the University of Southern Maine, recently got a five-year, $1.6 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The goal of the grant is to continue the research Wise has been pursuing on how hexavalent chromium, a commonly used chemical compound used as a rust retardant, causes lung cancer. The grant represents the largest amount the Wise Lab has received in single-source funding.

Hexavalent chromium is known to cause human lung cancer and has become a major public health concern with widespread occupational and environmental exposure, according to Wise. What is not known, though, is how exactly the compound causes lung cancer.

The Wise Lab was the first to demonstrate that hexavalent chromium causes chromosome instability. “We now want to focus on determining how hexavalent chromium causes this instability,” Wise said in a press release issued by the University of Southern Maine. “Our hope is that determining the cause could lead to new ways to treat or even prevent lung cancer.”

Wise has lived in Cape Elizabeth for the past 12 years and grew up in Portland. He started the Wise Lab at Yale in 1998 with the goal of studying the impact of environmental pollutants on human health and wildlife.

Wise earned his undergraduate degree at George Mason University and his Ph.D. in pharmacology from George Washington University. He moved the lab from Yale to the University of Southern Maine in 2002 because he wanted to help build up the state’s bio-medical research industry.

In addition to running the lab, Wise also teaches a variety of courses in toxicology at the university. His wife, Sandra, works with him at the lab and the couple has three adult children, who are all now pursuing Ph.D.s in toxicology. The Wise household also includes two cats and four ferrets.

This week Wise spoke with the Current about the grant and his passion for science.

Q: Do you study things other than the environmental causes of lung cancer? If so, what other projects are you working on?

A: Right now the lab is also looking at the environmental impacts of chemicals on marine mammals, such as sea turtles, alligators and other species.

We’re also working on a Gulf of Mexico Offshore Toxicology Study to look at the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on whales and humans. This study is a blend on wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico and the people who depend on it.

This multi-year study consists of four phases – sample collection, impact assessment, education and outreach, and recovery assessment. I have a core group of five people that have been working on these issues for a long time – 10 years or more.

Q: What does it mean to you personally to get this grant? And, what does it mean for the lab?

A: Personally I am thrilled at the opportunity to continue this important work, humbled by the honor and excited by the opportunities the grant represents.

In terms of the lab, it provides us with essential funding and international attention. It also allows us to keep between 20 and 50 people on staff, including students, working on solving the problems caused by toxic chemicals.

In addition, it provides our students with a great opportunity to work on a national and international level. We’ve trained well over 100 students who are now doing great things in the fields of science and medicine.

This grant is also important to USM, especially with the recent negative press the institution has received regarding its budgeting. We are nationally known for our research in cancer and wildlife toxicology.

A lot of people apply for this grant but only about 14 percent receive any funding, which is another reason why getting this grant is so special.

Q: Can you explain what hexavalent chromium is and why it’s a suspect in causing lung cancer?

A: Hexavalent chromium is used to prevent rust and as a pigment in brightly colored paints, dyes and inks. It’s never been banned because it is so useful commercially and to the military.

It is known, not suspected, to cause cancer. What we are pursuing is how it causes cancer in order to learn how to better treat and prevent cancer from this chemical compound, as well as in general.

Hexavalent chromium is also the compound that poisoned the water in the town of Hinkley, Calif., which was found by Erin Brockovich, a file clerk in a local law office, who discovered the medical records that led to the largest toxic tort settlement in U.S. History.

In 1996 Pacific Gas & Electric paid $333 million in damages to more than 600 Hinkley residents. Brockovich’s story was also turned into the 2000 movie starring Julia Roberts, which followed all the twists and turns in the case.

Q: What do you enjoy most about the research you are doing? And, did you always know you wanted to be a scientist?

A: What I most enjoy is that my work is a blend of making the world a better place, as well as being able to teach and mentor students.

Oddly enough, I always knew I wanted to be a scientist. I read the Ranger Rick magazine as a kid and ever since I was 4 or 5 years old I knew I wanted to work on wildlife issues.

I got into toxicology and specifically studying the effects of hexavalent chromium because I had a mentor who was working on this issue when I was a student.

(Go online to for more information about the Wise Lab and its work.)

John Wise

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