Faculty Spotlight - Seed Grant Recipient Christopher Heaney, PhD



Water and Health

Christopher Heaney, PhD, MS, earned a MS in environmental health microbiology and virology and a PhD in epidemiology at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. Before coming to Johns Hopkins, Dr. Heaney worked in epidemiology and biomarkers at a division of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Presently, Dr. Heaney is an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the departments of Environmental Health Sciences and Epidemiology, as well as the director of the Johns Hopkins Environmental Health Microbiology and Immunology Laboratory (EHMIL) at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.


At the EPA, Dr. Heaney worked with researchers who were investigating the development of saliva-based screening tools for exposure to waterborne pathogens among beach-goers. The majority of the existing tools used to assess immune responses to pathogens require the collection of biospecimens, such as blood and stool. The invasive nature of collecting these samples poses a serious problem for voluntary participation rates in large epidemiologic field studies. Beyond the beach-goer population, the collection of stool and blood as a biomarker in infants and young children has proven to be a challenge in investigations of exposure and disease burden, especially in remote locations.


Recently, Dr. Heaney was awarded one of the Johns Hopkins Water Institute’s Seed Grants for his research on saliva as a biomarker to screen children for exposure and disease outcomes related to specific WASH-related (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) pathogens. The project, in conjunction with the WASH Benefits Bangladesh study, focuses on a population of roughly 1150 children outside Dhaka. This target population was selected because of rampant malnutrition, frequent pathogen exposure and infection, and a desire to understand what is causing these children not to grow and thrive as one might expect. In this type of remote, resource limited area, collecting and analyzing blood and stool, the traditional biomarkers, is largely impractical. Because the resources that are required to implement cold-chain, biohazards, and phlebotomy protocols are not readily available, it is especially prudent to establish an alternative biomarker to blood and stool to get disease statistics. Dr. Heaney’s research will investigate how to optimize saliva-based antibody immunoassay tests to determine which pathogens are related to an individual’s symptoms and linked to a specific disease.


Dr. Heaney will be working with an impressive team for the duration of the project. Dr. Douglas Granger, adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins Schools of Public Health, Nursing, and Medicine, has recently relocated to lead the Institute for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research at Arizona State University. He has extensive experience on salivary biomarkers and diagnostics that are significant for child psychology and development. Dr. Stephen Luby, a professor of infectious disease at Stanford University, is the Principal Investigator of the WASH benefits study in Bangladesh. Audrie Lin, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, is the coordinating microbiologist for the WASH Benefits study and is directly involved with the field teams in Dhaka. Nora Pisanic is a postdoctoral fellow working in Dr. Heaney’s lab in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. 


Christopher Heaney, WASH Benefits, saliva-based screening