Rutgers researchers receive $2.5 million NIEHS grant to study cadmium exposure in expecting mothers

Rutgers researchers, with the aid of $2.5 million National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) grant, will study how exposure to cadmium during pregnancy can impact fetal development.

Exposure to cadmium, a heavy metal, during pregnancy has been linked to impaired fetal and infant growth including an increased risk of future chronic, particularly cardiometabolic, diseases. Today, virtually all pregnant women show measurable levels of exposure to the heavy metal, which is found in foods such as shellfish, liver, kidney meat, grain cereals, potatoes and some leafy vegetables. Pregnant women who smoke or are exposed to second – or third hand smoke are also at risk for exposure.

Unlike some other environmental toxins, cadmium can accumulate in a mother's placenta, suggesting that this metal may actually impact the placenta's ability to promote the healthy growth and development of babies. The placenta is the main connection between mother and fetus and is responsible for providing nutrients and removing waste.

The grant – led by co-principal investigators Emily Barrett, PhD, associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health and Lauren Aleksunes, PharmD, PhD, associate professor at the Ernst Mario School of Pharmacy, along with Dan Huh, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, will examine how transporter proteins can reduce the impact of cadmium exposure on placental health. Transporter proteins are thought to work by removing heavy metals from the placenta and returning them back to maternal circulation, a process that may be key for maintaining placental functions including getting nutrients to the developing fetus. Understanding differences in the activity of these transporter proteins could reveal which babies will be most affected by environmental contaminants, such as cadmium.

The researchers will use multi-disciplinary approaches that include animal models, a cohort of pregnant women, and an innovative "placenta on a chip" approach.

"We are excited to apply state-of-the-art approaches to reveal novel mechanisms in the placenta that reduce fetal health in response to toxicants within our environment," comments Dr. Aleksunes. "Exciting technologies such as 'placentas on a chip' have been pioneered by engineers such as Dr. Huh. His model mimics a human placenta by including multiple types of placental human cells grown under conditions that simulate maternal and fetal blood flow."

Pregnancy is an incredibly vulnerable time for both mother and child, and any toxic environmental exposures can have a life-long impact. To complement the basic science approaches used by Drs. Aleksunes and Huh, and translate their findings to human health, Dr. Barrett will study families participating in an ongoing study, "Understanding Pregnancy Signals and Infant Development" (UPSIDE). Since 2016, UPSIDE has recruited nearly 300 Upstate New York women during early pregnancy. The resulting children will be studied until they are four years old to learn about their development. In the new project, the team will look at mothers' cadmium levels during pregnancy in relation to children's growth, examining whether placental transporters offer protection against cadmium's adverse effects on the developing child.

"Although it is the main connection between mother and fetus, we are only beginning to understand the critical role that the placenta plays in the relationship between prenatal exposures and children's development," comments Dr. Barrett, who is also a member of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute at Rutgers. "This project is an exciting opportunity to learn more about the insights that the placenta can give us into the long-term risks of health and disease."

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