Student Research Experiences – Spring 2015

In addition to offering a couple students the opportunity to participate in pilot project research, the HERCULES Center also connected students with some of our investigators to assist in working on specific projects within their broader environmental health research projects. Below are a couple highlights of student research over the past year.  

Exposures to Multiple Persistent Pollutants in Chemical Workers and their Family Members: An Expansion of the Michigan PBB Cohort

Lauren LeStourgeon, MPH

During my second year as an MPH candidate in the Department of Environmental Health, I was able to work as a graduate research assistant with the HERCULES Center in collaboration with Dr. Michele Marcus and the Michigan PBB Registry team in the Department of Epidemiology. Dr. Michele Marcus and her team manage a registry and cohort of people who were exposed to polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) from an industrial accident in Michigan in the early 1970s. The team also conducts research to better understand the long term health effects from the exposure – both for those who were exposed in the 1970’s, but also transgenerational health effects.

By working on the team, I have been able to be a part of all aspects of the epidemiological research process, including participant recruitment, data management and analysis, and communication of findings with community participant and advisory groups. My specific project working on the PBB Registry team in collaboration with the HERCULES Center was to characterize the exposure of a sub cohort of participants to PBB and other persistent organic pollutants. In the 1990s, before the registry was transferred to Dr. Marcus, persons who had once worked in the chemical plant that manufactured PBB or was a family member of a chemical worker were dropped from the registry and not asked to participate in research due to concern that their multiple exposures to other chemicals made at the plant could confound research findings. However, with the support of the HERCULES Center, chemical workers and their family members were asked to be included in ongoing and future research.

My project entailed analyzing distributions of concentrations of PBB, DDT, and DDE in participants’ blood serum as categorized by their chemical worker or family member status, or other Michigander participants. These distributions were also compared with data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) that served as a national baseline comparison of exposure. The most significant result from the project was that chemical workers and their family members have significantly elevated PBB serum concentrations compared with the other Michigander participants and NHANES national data. This confirms the need for this group of people to be added back into the registry and the further need to assess their exposures to multiple persistent pollutants that they have been exposed to over their lifespan – both occupationally and environmentally.

The Impact of Environmental Toxicants on VMAT2

Lauren Jonas, MPH Candidate

As a first year MPH student at the Rollins School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health, I have had the opportunity to work in Dr. Gary Miller’s lab. Throughout the past year, I have had the opportunity to work on projects with the Vesicular Monoamine Transporter 2 (VMAT2) and Synaptic Vesicle glycoprotein 2c (SV2C) which are both believed to be involved with the pathogenesis of Parkinson’s disease, parkinsonism, and/or manganism. 

Our lab works with these neuronal proteins because of their localization in the basal ganglia, where much of the cellular destruction in Parkinson’s disease takes place.  Using techniques such as high throughput screening and immunohistochemistry, I tested whether environmental exposures such as organophosphate pesticides, flame retardants, pollutants, and biologically relevant metal ions disrupt these neuronal proteins. 

VMAT2 is a critical component of the monoamine neurotransmission system as it transports monoamines such as dopamine from the neuronal cytosol into the synaptic vesicles and thus contributes to neurotransmitter release. In order to study VMAT2 disruption further I worked with the fluorescence substrate FFN206, which is a fluorescent VMAT2 substrate well suited for the study of VMAT2 in cell culture.  Using high throughput screens, I was involved with testing a battery of environmental toxicants on VMAT2 to observe inhibition or disruption of the transporter, which can be quantitatively examined with the FFN206 assay.