People living around Lake Erie are quite familiar with algal toxins – harmful algal blooms are a near-yearly occurrence, and those blooms can produce toxins that need to be removed from drinking water drawn from the lake. Researchers at The University of Toledo are now setting their sights on another potential set of contaminants.
Dr. Steven Haller and Dr. David Kennedy have received funding from Ohio Sea Grant for a two-year project ending in early 2022. The researchers are focusing on the effects of the chemicals found in pharmaceuticals, personal care products and industrial materials on people with pre-existing liver and kidney conditions. By using liver and kidney cells from human donors, they hope to closely approximate the effects of these chemicals on human tissues, more so than they could with animal models.
“There’s been a little bit of work done in terms of these chemicals’ effects on health, but our goal for this project is not just to understand how healthy people process these chemicals,” Kennedy said. “We also want to see if vulnerable or at-risk patients might be at greater risk because of the chronic conditions they already have.”
Haller explained that they are trying to establish both the “no observable adverse effect level – the point where you don’t see any adverse effects” and the “lowest observed adverse effect level, which is the lowest dose where you actually see a biologically significant effect on these cells.”
The researchers suspect that in people with existing liver or kidney conditions, that lowest observed adverse effect level is lower than in healthy people, which would have implications for public health recommendations and regulations centered around managing emerging chemicals in the environment.
The team is using human cells from procedures such as routine biopsies, with consent from the donors. Once the cells are cultured in the laboratory, they can be exposed to the chemicals that were selected for the study, and the damage those chemicals do to the cells can be assessed. Results from these cell culture studies will help inform efforts to prevent, diagnose, or treat the cellular injury associated with these exposures.
“If we determine that a particular disease is making people more susceptible, we give that information to partners like the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department and the Ohio Department of Health so that they can provide guidelines for prevention,” Kennedy said. “Guidelines such as ‘if you have diabetes, you may be at more risk from these kinds of exposures, therefore you may need to limit your exposure through these means.’”
The researchers are also thinking about the diagnostic tools medical staff use to determine if people have been affected by certain chemicals, because they learned during a study on algal toxins that the damage those toxins cause in the liver doesn’t show up on standard bloodwork for liver damage. So in addition to evaluating those standard tests for the emerging chemicals they’re interested in, they will also look for enzymes and proteins in the cell samples that do indicate that damage and could be added to a panel of laboratory tests.
“And then the third part is therapeutics,” Kennedy said. “Some things are good at telling you if damage is occurring, but then some things are more fundamental to the cellular processes that are being damaged. So if that’s happening here, we can look at ways of treating or reversing that damage.”
Of course, the team’s hope is that these emerging chemicals won’t become a major concern after all for the people who rely on Lake Erie for drinking water. But for now, the project will provide important information that can be used not only to encourage policies that reduce the presence of these compounds in the environment, but also to ensure that people with pre-existing health conditions that may be sensitive to their effects are protected by informed preventative, diagnostic and treatment strategies.