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Environmental Factor, December 2012

Research on PCBs and obesity earns Wetterhahn award

By Sara Mishamandani and Carol Kelly

Nicki Baker presenting at SRP Annual Meeting

Baker presented her research at the SRP annual meeting Oct. 23 in Raleigh, N.C. The very next day, Environmental Health Perspectives accepted and published her paper, online, on coplanar PCBs and weight loss in obese mice. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Bill Suk, Ph.D. talks with Baker

Bill Suk, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS SRP, talks with Baker during a break. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Research about environmental toxins and their impact on obesity and type 2 diabetes is the basis for Nicki Baker’s receipt of the 2012 Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award. Baker, a trainee in the NIEHS-funded University of Kentucky (UK) Superfund Research Program (SRP), accepted the prestigious award Oct. 23 at the NIEHS SRP annual meeting.

Exposure to PCB’s and weight loss

Baker’s work, which was recently published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, (http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/2012/10/1205421/) brings novel insight into how environmental toxins, namely coplanar polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), affect human health. In the study, Baker found that when obese mice experienced weight loss, those exposed previously to PCBs lost the benefit of glucose homeostasis, or stability, reducing the influence of weight loss in preventing type 2 diabetes.

PCBs are a class of hazardous chemicals that were banned in the 1970s. However, these toxic compounds linger in groundwater and soil. Because they are lipophilic, or have an attraction to fat, PCBs also accumulate in fat tissue.

In her study, Baker investigated the effects of coplanar PCBs on the expression of tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), a known contributor to insulin resistance, and the levels of glucose and insulin in lean and obese mice.

Results of the study are described in “PCBs impair glucose homeostasis in mice,” one of the Environmental Factor’s extramural papers of the month for December.

2012 Wetterhahn Award Winner

Baker, the 15th recipient of the annual Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award, is a doctoral student under the guidance of Lisa Cassis, Ph.D., in the Graduate Center for Nutritional Sciences at UK. The SRP acknowledged Baker for her contributions to research, as well as her contributions to the community.

In addition to her doctoral work, Baker is an adjunct instructor at the Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, Ky., teaching human nutrition and human ecology. Through her lectures, she strives to increase interest in nutrition and its ability to influence health and disease. She is also a mentor to undergraduates studying the effects of Superfund chemicals on adipocytes, also known as fat cells.

“Nicki knows what she wants to achieve and, as a result, works diligently and responsibly in all aspects of her project,” said Cassis. “On her own initiative, she is serving as a role model for future scientists studying environmental chemicals.”

Citation: Baker NA, Karounos M, English V, Fang J, Wei Y, Stromberg A, Sunkara M, Morris AJ, Swanson HI, Cassis LA. (http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/2012/10/1205421/) 2012. Coplanar polychlorinated biphenyls impair glucose homeostasis in lean C57BL/6 mice and mitigate beneficial effects of weight loss on glucose homeostasis in obese mice. Environ Health Perspect; doi:10.1289/ehp.1205421 [Online 24 October 2012].

(Sara Mishamandani, a research and communication specialist for MDB, Inc., is a contractor for the NIEHS SRP and Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT). Carol Kelly, a research and communication specialist with MDB, Inc., is a contractor for DERT.)


Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award 

Karen Wetterhahn, an expert in the mechanisms of metal toxicity, was best known for her research on chromium. A professor of chemistry at Dartmouth College, she founded Dartmouth's Toxic Metals Research Program in 1995.

In addition to research, Wetterhahn was passionate about teaching. Concerned about the higher rate of dropout of women from the sciences compared to men, she worked with a colleague to develop the Women in Science Project at Dartmouth. This successful program provides a learning environment where first-year women engage in experiences designed to further their interest in science, math, or engineering.

Tragically, Wetterhan died in 1997, as a result of dimethylmercury poisoning, caused by the accidental spill of a few drops of the chemical on her latex glove-covered hand.

Wetterhahn's death shocked the scientific community, including regulatory agencies, because she had taken all required safety measures known at the time. Safety guidelines by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration were soon changed to reflect the high risk associated with the use of dimethylmercury.

As a tribute to her legacy, NIEHS created the annual Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award, shortly after her death. The award recognizes outstanding young scientists who are conducting research relevant to Superfund or the cleanup of hazardous waste sites. The awardee receives support to attend one major scientific conference, in addition to travel funds to attend the NIEHS SRP annual meeting, where they present their research.



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