The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has funded an environmental scientist $1.7 million to investigate whether early exposure to pollutants could make people more prone to diabetes.

Dr Alicia Timme-Laragy, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst is heading a five year investigation as to whether pollutants can cause aberrant pancreatic development in embryos.

The research is based on the fact that past studies have indicated that the contaminants we pump into the environment, including common chemicals used in plastics such as PCBs and phthalates, can predispose people to disease.

Timme-Laragy hypothesizes that early oxidative stress can disrupt signaling pathways that control embryo growth, or even cause structural changes to the Beta cells of the pancreas which produces insulin.

Timme-Laragy says that “surprisingly little is known about how embryos respond to oxidative stress, or the impact of toxicant exposures on pancreas development.”

“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,” she says. “By looking at the genetics, the molecular biology and the biochemistry and links to health effects, we hope to find targets for prevention.”

As part of this research, Timme-Laragy and partners from Brigham Young and McMaster universities will study embryonic zebrafish, which are good models for human development.

They will look at how these pollutants affect the growth of the fish, helped by the embryos’ transparency, as Timme-Laragy explained: “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.”

She notes that her study will be one of the first to comprehensively analyze toxicant effects on pancreas development and the role of oxidative stress as a potential cause of diabetes and other health effects.