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Vol. LXII, No. 23
November 12, 2010
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ORWH Seminar Explores Effects of Environmental Exposures on Gene Action
ORWH director Dr. Vivian Pinn (r) welcomes guest speakers at the recent seminar on environmental exposures. They are (from l) Dr. Shuk-mei Ho, Dr. Frederick Miller, Dr. Melissa Friesen and Dr. Frederica Perera.  
ORWH director Dr. Vivian Pinn (r) welcomes guest speakers at the recent seminar on environmental exposures. They are (from l) Dr. Shuk-mei Ho, Dr. Frederick Miller, Dr. Melissa Friesen and Dr. Frederica Perera.  

Children exposed prenatally to high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—an air pollutant found in diesel exhaust—scored lower on tests of mental and physical development compared to children who had lower prenatal exposures, said Dr. Frederica Perera, who presented the research at the Environmental Exposures and Women’s Health seminar on Oct. 5.

Perera, of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH), was one of four speakers at the seminar in Lipsett Amphitheater. It was the latest in the Women’s Health Seminar Series organized by the Office of Research on Women’s Health.

Perera summarized two CCCEH longitudinal studies that found that children exposed to higher levels of PAHs while still in the womb had lower IQ scores and more behavioral problems, including anxiety, depression and attention deficits. The effects persisted among the children, who were last tested at age 6. She discussed the results of this and other CCCEH studies in terms of epigenetics—the effect the environment has on gene action.

Dr. Shuk-mei Ho of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine has studied how prenatal exposure to diethylstilbestrol (the synthetic estrogen more commonly known as DES) and genistein (a phytoestrogen found in soy products) can play a role in the development of uterine cancer. Mouse studies suggest that if exposure to genistein occurs prenatally, it can lead to uterine tumors. Genistein and DES appear to reprogram the uterine epigenome when exposure occurs early in life by altering a subset of genes, she said.

The prevalence of autoimmune diseases, which primarily attack women of childbearing age, is increasing globally, said Dr. Frederick Miller of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. These diseases entail a chronic immune activation, in a genetically susceptible individual, following an environmental exposure. A number of genes have been associated with these diseases, some of them linked to multiple autoimmune diseases. A variety of substances have been identified as possible environmental triggers. Research needs to determine which gene-environment interactions lead to which syndromes and should proceed globally, he said.

Dr. Melissa Friesen of the National Cancer Institute said that when it comes to assessing occupational cancer risk, women are not simply small men. Occupational risk to men and women should be assessed separately for a variety of reasons, including hormonal changes in women that may change their risk for the same exposures, particularly when they occur earlier in life. Differences between men and women in breathing rates, heart rates and fat levels may also play a role in differential risk.NIHRecord Icon


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