Investigating environmental contaminants and human growth

A profile of Cynthia (Cindy) Gates Goodyer, PhD
 
From her lab in an MCH pavilion, Dr. Cynthia Goodyer is co-leading a $2.5 million, five-year study with her McGill colleague, Dr. Barbara Hales. Under the microscope are the possible toxic effects of brominated flame retardants (BFRs)—chemicals that are almost impossible to avoid.
 
BFRs are added to consumer products to keep them from catching fire too quickly. They are present in products ranging from textiles to insulation, electrical wiring, foam furniture and electronics. Over 80% of human exposure to BFRs is from contaminated dust in our living spaces, the result of normal wear and tear on these products. The remainder comes from food.
 
Previous research in animals and humans suggests that BFRs may affect early stages of development as well as reproductive health. In response to these findings, Canada, the US and many European countries have banned the production as well as the use of several BFRs in manufactured products over the past decade.
 
Unfortunately, Dr. Goodyer points out, many of the products we use in daily life were made prior to the ban. When discarded, these products are usually sent to landfills where the BFRs enter groundwater systems and continue to exist as environmental contaminants, moving progressively up the food chain. In the past twenty years, the concentrations of BFRs in the North American environment have risen dramatically. As a result, the levels of BFRs measured in the serum of North Americans are now among the highest in the world. The highest levels are found in newborns and infants.
 
With funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Drs. Goodyer and Hales are coordinating a team of eighteen investigators from five Canadian universities and Health Canada to conduct animal and human studies of the effects of BFRs, both during development and on male and female reproduction. The multidisciplinary team is also exploring ethical, legal and social issues surrounding the use of BFRs and human exposures.
 
The goal of this research is to determine whether BFRs pose a potential health risk not only to individuals, but to future generations—information that will be important for policy-makers, health professionals and the Canadian community at large.
 
Like most career scientists, Dr. Goodyer is working on more than one long-term project, and the findings from one enrich the other. The second focus of her lab is human growth.
 
Growth, she explains, is a complex process regulated by many genes as well as by nutritional and environmental factors. Growth hormone (GH) is known to play an essential role in the growing child as well as in the adult. It works through multiple growth-promoting as well as metabolic effects, by binding to its specific receptor (GHR) on target cells. Thus, the ability of GH to exert its actions is intimately linked to the availability of its receptor.
 
Dr. Goodyer aims to identify the regions within the GHR gene that are responsible for controlling GHR expression. This “biological blueprint” will provide the basis for understanding how tissue GHR levels change during normal development and differ from one individual to another. It will also help to define genetic changes in individuals at all ages who show either decreased responsiveness to GH (abnormal postnatal growth, obesity) or enhanced GH responsiveness (cancers).