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Endocrine Disrupting Compounds and Women's Health

By Tara Ann Cartwright
April 2010

National Lab Day
Birnbaum filmed her message beforehand because she was unable to attend and show her support in person. Her remarks followed an introduction by ORWH Director Vivian Pinn, M.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

National Lab Day
Representing the NIEHS Office of the Director at the event was Legislative Liaison Mary Gant, above, who introduced the speakers. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS and NTP took center stage March 2 on the NIH campus with a seminar on "Environmental Exposures and Women's Health" sponsored by the NIH Office of Research on Women's Health (ORWH). Broadcast from the NIH Lipsett Amphitheater in Bethesda, the event featured four experts whose scientific research explores associations between exposure to environment contaminants, such as endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs), and increased risk of disease among women.

Linked video: Video by NIH. (Opens in new window)

In her welcoming remarks, NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., underscored the Institute's mission to foster the critically needed research on environmental contaminants that continue to influence women's health and wellbeing. Birnbaum also discussed how research at NIEHS has made vital contributions to understanding women's health and reproductive issues and will continue to pursue solutions to these critical health problems - work that she said "is near and dear to my heart as a woman, a scientist, and the first female director [of NIEHS]."

NTP reproductive endocrinologist Suzanne Fenton, Ph.D.

Fenton opened the seminar with a talk exploring "Early Life Environmental Exposures: Lifelong Impact of Mammary Gland Development and Function." Fenton, a group leader in the Cellular and Molecular Pathology Branch at NIEHS, utilizes rodent models to examine the effects of prenatal and lactational EDC exposure on mammary gland development.

Fenton demonstrated that exposure to the three EDCs, dioxin, atrazine, and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) induced abnormal development of the mammary gland, including decreased ductal branching and delays in the differentiation of terminal buds. Fenton's animal studies of early life exposure effects on sexual development and the impact on other aspects of health set the stage for the speakers who followed her.

NICHD Postdoctoral Fellow Maureen Cooney, Ph.D.

Moving from basic research to epidemiology, the second speaker in the seminar lectured on "Environmental Influences on Female Fecundity and Fertility." Cooney ( NIEHS, a postdoctoral fellow in the Epidemiology Branch at The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) directed by Germaine Buck Louis, Ph.D. ( NIEHS, focused primarily on the interplay between EDCs and female reproduction and development.

According to Cooney, NICHD is presently conducting two research efforts addressing reproductive heath end points, the LIFE (Longitudinal Investigation of Fertility in the Environment) and ENDO (Endometriosis: Natural History, Diagnosis, and Outcomes) studies. The LIFE study assesses the reproductive and developmental toxicity of environmental chemicals among couples at risk for pregnancy, while the ENDO study examines the relationship between environmental chemicals and endometriosis.

Fenton, shown above at SOT with a coauthor, University of North Carolina toxicology student Madisa Macon, was lead speaker at the event. The seminar highlighted a series of investigators whose common research goal is to increase the understanding of how the environment influences women''s diseases and disorders. (Photo courtesy of Ed Kang)

NIEHS grantee Brenda Eskenazi, Ph.D.

Following Cooney was grantee ( Brenda Eskenazi, a professor of maternal and child health and epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley. Eskenazi's lecture explored "Early Exposure to Endocrine Disruptors and its Effects on Women's Health: Evidence from Two Longitudinal Studies." Eskenazi is the principal investigator of the Seveso Women's Health Study, which found that young children who were exposed to dioxin during the Seveso, Italy disaster - an explosion in 1976 that exposed the surrounding population to some of the highest levels recorded in humans - have an increased risk in developing early menarche. This study is currently examining the relationship of dioxin to breast cancer, diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome.

Eskenazi also discussed her work at the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS), which she covered in more depth during a Distinguished Lecture Seminar Series talk at NIEHS later in the month (see related story(

NIEHS grantee Jose Russo, M.D.

Concluding the event was Jose Russo ( NIEHS, director of both the Fox Chase Breast Cancer Research Laboratory (BCRL) and the NIEHS-National Cancer Institute Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers (BCERC) at the Fox chase Cancer Center. Russo spoke on how prepubertal and prenatal exposure to bisphenol A (BPA) increases the tumorigenic response in the mammary gland. Russo's current studies have demonstrated that prenatal exposure of BPA induced phenotypic changes in mammary tissue and genotypic changes in resulting tumors. He said these tumors had an earlier onset and were larger in diameter, more aggressive, abundant, and more undifferentiated.

Russo pursues his research through NIEHS Breast Cancer Center and research grants.

(Tara Ann Cartwright, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Neurobiology Membrane Signaling Group.)

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