The UCSF Center on Pregnancy Exposures to Environmental Chemicals (PEEC)

Investigator: Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH
Sponsor: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Location(s): United States


The UCSF Pregnancy Exposures to Environmental Chemicals Children's Center will advance scientific and public understanding of how environmental chemicals affect the seminal early stages of human in utero development, which could manifest as adverse effects on children's health. We are testing the hypothesis that the mechanisms include damage to the placenta—which governs in utero programming, birth weight and consequently, childhood health—and that these effects are exacerbated by social stress. The approach integrates our unique capacity to systematically measure environmental chemicals during mid-pregnancy with our well-developed in vitro and in vivo systems for understanding the consequences of these exposures. Thus, we propose a generalizable, multi-disciplinary experimental strategy that could be used to study the impact of a wide array of environmental chemicals on prenatal human development. We have chosen to focus on polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). These compounds, which are found in virtually all pregnant US women, are implicated in endocrine disruption, placental pathologies and adverse birth outcomes.

Project 1 will use basic science approaches and a novel in vitro model of human placentation to study the effects of these chemicals on trophoblasts—the basic building blocks of this organ—at transcriptomic, epigenomic and functional levels.

Project 2 joins exposure science with placental biology. The Investigators will use targeted and non-targeted biomonitoring approaches to generate new data on human maternal and fetal exposures to PBDEs, PFCs and chemicals that are being measured for the first time during the second trimester. Then the relationship between these exposures and morphological and molecular markers of placental development will be evaluated to determine possible associations.

Project 3 will evaluate the cumulative effects of prenatal PBDE and PFC exposures and chronic psychosocial stress on fetal growth in a diverse population of pregnant women. The investigators will employ innovative approaches for measuring psychosocial stress, including geocoded neighborhood measures of the social environment and interviews to assess participants' perceived stress and social standing. Biological assays—telomere length and hormone levels—will be used to measure maternal and fetal stress responses.

The experimental design of this Center is highly interactive. We will determine if the novel PBDE and PFC targets that are discovered in Project 1 are misexpressed in the placental samples collected by Project 2. Project 3 will assess chemical effects on fetal growth with priority placed on the PFC and PBDE congeners identified as having strong adverse placental effects in Projects 1 and 2. Finally, Investigators on all the Projects will work with the Clinical Outreach and Translation Core to disseminate study results to key audiences in the clinical and policy arenas. The goal is to reduce the lag time between scientific discovery and prevention of harmful exposures during pregnancy, thus promoting child health.