Are chemicals in plastics affecting fertility rates in humans? How about everyday personal-care products, from deodorants to moisturizers and shampoos? What about environmental pollutants?
The subject, surprisingly, hasn’t been studied extensively, but a new local open-ended collaboration of a fertility clinic, top analytical chemists at a high-tech lab and adventurous researcher hopes to start answering those questions.
Physicians at Coastal Fertility Specialists in Mount Pleasant will be working with the National Institutes of Standards and Technology at the Hollings Marine Laboratory at Fort Johnson and Dr. Louis Guillette, chairman of marine genomics, famed for his research with alligators, crocodiles and wildlife in Florida, Africa and other locales.
Guillette’s findings in wild animals in the field have found that man-made contaminants have caused damage to reproductive systems.
“There’s clearly a relationship (between contaminants and wildlife reproduction),” Guillette says. “When people think of disease or health, most think of genes and germs. What did I get defective from Mom or Dad or what did I catch.
“Most don’t think of the environmental component, but it’s becoming a bigger and bigger deal. And it’s not just the pollution in the classic sense of air pollution, but it’s the personal-care products we use and the stuff we get in our foods.”
Guillette has long wanted to do studies with human tissues, but hasn’t had a source of material — namely, the follicular fluid and granulosa cells from eggs used in invitro fertilization that would otherwise be thrown away — until now.
“What was difficult for us was finding a group (of physicians) that was interested in doing research because of a lot of private-practice physicians are not,” Guillette says.
“First, they have enough to handle seeing patients. Second, we needed to find someone who was intrigued by environmental questions associated with health. It’s not new in medicine, but it’s not the mainstream.”
The staff at Coastal Fertility are asking for patient volunteers, both egg donors and recipients, for permission to study the fluid and cells, which concentrate compounds found in the blood, as well as blood, and to see how its affecting fertility.
The volunteers, who won’t be identified, will be asked to answer a questionnaire about habits and exposure to pollutants. Otherwise, they will not have any other requirements. The researchers will follow the outcomes of their pregnancies.
Dr. Michael Slowey, reproductive endocrinologist at Coastal Fertility, says they can’t pinpoint a cause for infertility in about 20 percent to 25 percent of couples seeking help nor answers for many woman who lose fetuses.
“I see a fair amount of young woman whose ovaries are well-advanced in the aging process. Why is that? Were they not born with a million eggs like they should be? Did they use them up at a faster rate than they should?” Slowey asks rhetorically.
“We understand a lot, but there are still a lot of questions to answer. Certainly as we start to look at animal models, we can clearly see that things we put in our environment ... mostly plastics,” Slowey says.
His practice partner, Dr. John Schnoor, says there is “no doubt that BPA (Bisphenol-A), phthalates and other common environmental contaminants stimulate our hormonal system and impact all of us.”
“Our knowledge in this area is in its infancy, and studies such as this have the ability to dramatically improve reproductive health throughout the world. Imagine if we could measure your blood and say, stop drinking out of plastic and stop using hair spray and your reproduction will improve,” Schnorr says.
Unlike many studies that are narrow in focus, the collaboration will be looking at between 70 and 90 different compounds, Gillette says.
“It will be much more inclusive,” Guillette says.
“People are interested in BPA and phthalates from personal-care products. We’ll look at both, but one of the things I’m trying to do is discovery research. ... Are there other things we haven’t looked at? If we do a more inclusive study, are things going to pop out that we didn’t know?”
Ultimately, he says, the goals of the research is healthier babies and lower health care costs.
Guillette holds one of the alligators that hatched at the Hollings Marine Laboratory. The researcher holds joint appointments in MUSC’s department of obstetrics and gynecology and as director of the Marine Biomedicine & Environmental Sciences Center at the Hollings Marine Lab.×
Jennifer Martin, an embryologist, fertilizes an egg at Coastal Fertility Specialist in Mount Pleasant, which is collaborating with researchers wanting to study the impact of man-made pollution on fertility and reproduction.×