Man-made plastics linked to birth defects

PULLMAN – The likelihood that older pregnant women will give birth to chromosomally abnormal children will be greatly diminished if Washington State University geneticist Patricia Hunt has her way.

Hunt, an internationally renowned geneticist and faculty member in the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences, and her research colleagues are examining the role age plays in altering chromosomes in human eggs.

She will discuss her research in “Birth Defects and Older Mothers: Piecing Together the Genetic Puzzle” from noon to 1:30 p.m. Oct. 18 at The Rainier Club, 840 4th Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $30 per person and include lunch from noon to 1:30 p.m., with registration to begin at 11:30 a.m. To reserve a spot, visit Registration will continue until capacity is reached.

Hunt’s research focuses on germ cell development to understand the genetic control of sex determination and the meiotic process (cell division that halves the number of chromosomes in reproductive cells) in mammals. Although researchers have determined that the maternal age effect is the result of errors in the cell division process that typically occurs during the completion of the first meiotic division, the exact role of age in the process remains unknown.

She focuses additional research efforts on the impact that exposure to compounds in man-made plastics has on reproduction. Her initial research indicates exposure to the plasticizer bisphenol A (BPA), used in a variety of plastic products and epoxy resins, causes birth defects in mice.

Additionally, the potential reproductive effects of man-made substances that mimic the action of endogenous (derived internally) hormones is an area of increasing concern. The unintentional exposure of mice to BPA during the course of meiotic studies suggested that “estrogen mimic” greatly disrupts mammalian female meiosis, increasing the risk of chromosome abnormalities in eggs produced by exposed females.

Most human aneuploidies, an embryo with an inappropriate number of chromosomes, are caused by errors during female meiosis. Compared to other species, the incidence of errors in the human female is extraordinarily high and, for reasons unknown, is strongly influenced by age.

A member of the WSU faculty since January 2005, Hunt receives her primary research funding from the National Institutes of Health. She is a former faculty member at Case Western Reserve University and Emory University.

Hunt earned a bachelor’s degree at Michigan State University and a master’s degree and doctorate in anatomy and reproductive biology from the University of Hawaii.