A US environmental scientist has been given a $1.7 million grant to investigate if early exposure to pollutants can predispose people to diabetes.
Alicia Timme-Laragy, University of Massachusetts Amherst, will use this funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to conduct a multi-level study.
She will investigate if early exposure to contaminants such as Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and phthalates, and aberrant pancreas development can affect the development of diabetes.
“A lot of scientists are trying to understand these processes, but we will be doing something new by focusing at multiple levels on toxicant effects in pancreas development as a possible predisposition factor in diabetes,” said Timme-Laragy.
“By looking at the genetics, the molecular biology and the biochemistry and links to health effects, we hope to find targets for prevention.”
Timme-Laragy notes that disease can be caused by environmental contaminant exposure in early life through a number of ways. These include oxidative stress, changes to insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells and disrupted signalling pathways that control embryo growth.
Her long-term aim is to assess how toxic exposures contribute to diabetes development, and how embryos respond to oxidative stress.
As part of this research, Timme-Laragy and partners from Brigham Young and McMaster universities will study embryonic zebrafish, which have previously been used to identify potential type 1 diabetes drugs.
Zebrafish embryos are good models for human development, so the researchers will expose them to toxic chemicals at different points during development. This will help to establish any sensitive moments when the pancreas forms.
“Zebrafish embryos are transparent, so we can watch for changes fairly easily as they develop and the chemical exposure can be done without hurting the mother fish,” added Timme-Laragy.
She notes that her study will be one of the first to comprehensive analyse toxicant effects on pancreas development and the role of oxidative stress as a potential cause of diabetes and other health effects.

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