Uncovering the triggers for Type 2 diabetes and obesity

Dr Nicola Gray at the ANPC lab

Imagine that along with your annual blood test for cholesterol, liver function or iron levels, your GP could also request a reading the chemicals you've absorbed from the environment around you.

Murdoch University researcher Dr Nicola Gray wants to develop a test for Endocrine Disrupting Compound (EDCs) that could eventually become available to the community.

EDCs are chemicals found throughout the environment. Common EDCs include bisphenol A (BPA), widely used in food and drink packaging, and phthalates, which can be found in plastics and personal care products like nail polish and hair spray. 

The body’s natural hormones are secreted by glands and send signals that coordinate a vast number of bodily functions. Hormone signalling, however, can be disrupted by EDCs because they mimic natural hormonal action and can trick the body into generating more or less of a particular hormone, or breaking it down. 

“EDCs are contaminants that are found quite widely in the environment, in the air that we can breathe in, food, water, industrial chemicals, pesticides, things in plastic containers that might leach out into foods, and also personal care products, that can be absorbed into the skin,” she said.

“My field of research is focused on obesity and type 2 diabetes, where we know risk is influenced by genetic and lifestyle factors.

What is less known is the impact of environmental factors, like EDC exposure, in the development of these diseases.”
Dr Nicola Gray 

Because EDCs affect cells and tissues in even miniscule amounts, current testing strategies are not successful at detecting them. But Dr Gray has secured a Research & Innovation Seed Grant from Murdoch to begin developing a test to detect the level of EDC compounds in people’s blood. 

Dr Gray has access to quadropole time-of-flight (Q-TOF) mass spectrometers at Murdoch’s Australian National Phenome Centre (ANPC) - sophisticated machinery which can analyse what compounds are present in a sample, and at what levels.  

“This is still quite a new field partly because the technology hasn’t been there that enables us to detect all of these things, so that’s where I feel we could enhance that gap because we have state-of-the-art technology at the ANPC,” she said.

“Ultimately, we would like to develop a test which will enable us to detect these compounds should they be present in a blood sample.”

As part of her research project, Dr Gray will have access to blood samples from Busselton Health Study participants. She’ll be comparing baseline measurements with those conducted several years later. Samples from people who have developed either obesity or Type 2 diabetes over that period will be further examined for EDC levels.

“These are the people we’ll look at to see if they have higher levels, or have been exposed to, higher levels of those EDC contaminants compared to a healthy control group,” she said.

She hopes through her research that the link between EDCs and human disease will be better understood so people could potentially limit their exposure or regulations and guidance on the use and control of certain products could be changed.

With any test, we are looking to monitor people’s health and hopefully prevent disease”
Dr Nicola Gray


“If an EDC test became a part of routine clinical testing, individuals with higher levels of EDCs circulating in their system might be deemed as higher risk, so more clinical surveillance measures could be taken to manage their risk.

"Hopefully in any test we do, if we can detect a disease much earlier, it means people get access to education, treatment and maybe even ways to prevent or stall the disease from developing.”

Dr Gray’s research is one of 21 projects funded through the Research & Innovation Seed Grants for Murdoch early to mid-career researchers, with a total of $302,000 allocated.

Announcing the grants, Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor Research & Innovation Professor Peter Davies said the standard of application was very high.

“All the successful applicants put forward projects that we felt could develop into full-blown research programs over time - they just needed a kickstart and that’s what this funding program is looking to provide,” he said.

Dr Gray is one of a number of talented researchers who relocated to Perth from the United Kingdom following the opening of the ANPC in 2019. She completed her PhD in analytical chemistry at King’s College London. 

This research supports the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3 to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
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Posted on:

9 Nov 2021


Science, Research

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