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Environmental studies identify contaminants affecting reproduction, human health

By Dawn Brazell | News Center | April 1, 2013


Dr. Louis Guillette

Dr. Louis Guillette doing research in South Africa. His local and global research with alligators and crocodiles sheds light on how environmental contaminants are affecting human health.


Sometimes problems with environmental contaminants start early – even before birth.

That’s why researchers are pairing with expectant mothers at the Medical University of South Carolina and patients at a fertility clinic to examine what effects environmental contaminants may be having on reproductive health.

The two studies are being led by Louis Guillette, Ph.D., who was recruited to MUSC in 2010 by Roger Newman, M.D., director of the Division of Obstetrics and Gynecology Basic Science and vice chairman for academic affairs and research. Newman said these studies and others are transforming MUSC into a nationally recognized research center for environmental health, specifically in identifying the impact of environmental contaminants on reproductive health and development.

 “We have very exciting ongoing studies looking at the effects of selected contaminants on fetal genital development and the impact of environmental contaminants on fertility and the outcome of assisted reproductive interventions,” Newman said.

This new area of research is opening up because of the unique collaboration between an obstetrics-gynecology department and a reproductive biologist and scientist such as Guillette, buttressed by the resources available through the collaborations at Hollings Marine Laboratory, he said. Those collaborations include the expertise from scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the Hollings Marine Laboratory.

It also includes fertility physicians at Coastal Fertility Specialists. Guillette, in conjunction with MUSC’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, is working with that group to examine how exposure to common contaminants from household products, such as plastic water bottles, makeup, hairspray and deodorant affect female egg quality and quantity.

Dr. Louis Guillette talks to community groups regularly about common-sense ways to decrease exposure to environmental contaminants. To see some of his top tips, watch this video.

Guillette said this has been a dream project, and he’s excited to be able to collaborate on a study that will examine the follicular fluid and cells that surround the developing egg that generally would be thrown away during the in-vitro fertilization process.

“We’re not modifying the medical practice in any way, but we’re going to take those tissues and fluids that would be thrown away during the process and be able to analyze them for gene expression, contaminants and hormones in the plasma. We’ll be able to link that back to outcomes in the pregnancy.”

Another study within MUSC’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology examines if an expectant mother’s exposure to certain environmental contaminants affects fetal genital development. In this study the anogenital distance - or distance from the anus to the genitalia - is measured during ultrasound and at birth. The area is longer in males, but environmental contaminants may be affecting that distance and having a feminizing effect on embryonic development, Guillette said.

“What we find in little boys who come from moms with the highest level of phthalates is that their anogenital distance has in fact been reduced or feminized. We know that a number of phthalates are anti-androgens – they block the function of testosterone, which we know is important in embryonic development and in genital development.”

A third study is evaluating the effectiveness of an educational intervention to decrease both short and long-term exposure to Bisphenol A, known as BPA, which is an environmental contaminant found primarily in plastics. Guillette said the study examines if educating people about their exposure will cause lifestyle changes to affect their exposure.

“We have a number of things we hope we can take directly to the physician community and say we can actually improve upon pregnancy. If we can limit or minimize exposure to these factors that can have a health impact, we can have healthier pregnancies.”

Newman said that’s exactly what they are hoping to gain.

He’s glad to see research interest growing in this area from other departments, including neonatology, pediatrics, neurosciences and the Department of Medicine’s Division of Biometry and Epidemiology. Research is showing that various contaminants can impact the reproductive, endocrine, neurological and inflammatory system development. Contaminants also serve as endocrine disruptors known as obesogens that can cause weight gain.

 “Where I think these studies are going is only in a positive direction. The emerging evidence is that maternal and fetal exposures to even low concentrations of environmental contaminants can induce developmental changes that have life-long consequences. Many of the ‘epidemics’ that we are facing in this country and worldwide, such as obesity, reduced fertility rates, lower sperm counts, asthma, autism and depression to name a few, may all have a fetal developmental origin,” Newman said.

“The challenge is to nurture research opportunities and keep moving forward.”

For more information about the environmental studies or to find out how you may participate, visit the News You Can Use center. For more information on MUSC’s Marine Biomedicine and Environmental Sciences, visit its website.


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