Pediatric Geneticist Searches for Role of Environmental Contaminants in Birth Defects with $1.2 Million Grant from EPA

The effects of environmental contaminants on fetal growth and development is the subject of new research by Richard Finnell, Robert Cabrera and a team of researchers in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin using a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The grant is part of $11 million awarded to eight universities through the EPA's STAR (Science to Achieve Results) program.

Since 1970, new chemical compounds have been introduced into our environment at a rate of approximately 3,000 new chemical agents per year. The reproductive consequences of these compounds components of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, pesticides and toxic elements already existing in our environment have not been closely examined for their potential effects on fetal development.

"The sheer number of new chemicals entering our living environment demands innovation in studying their toxicity," said Finnell, a professor of nutritional sciences. "We hope to characterize the ability of these compounds to cause birth defects using highly automated toxicity testing methods."

Finnell's team will test the effects of various unknown, uncategorized contaminants on gene expression in mouse stem cells. Because they know how the genes in these cells control embryonic growth, these genetic studies will give the scientists information about how the new chemicals would affect developing mouse embryos.

Using the data from these genetic and other studies, the team will then develop mathematical models to predict which chemical exposures have the potential to harm a pregnant woman or her developing infant.

"The data generated will be further developed to produce models for developmental toxicity classification and toxicity predictions in humans," said Robert Cabrera, a long-time collaborator in the Finnell Laboratory and project manager for this EPA award.

Finnell's research program has examined effects of chemical agents including persistent organic pollutants (such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, organochlorine pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls) and pharmaceutical agents (such as valproic acid, an anti-seizure medication also prescribed for bipolar disorder and migraines) on fetal malformation, particularly neural tube defects, in humans.