February 21, 2023

Medical student’s experience in Petriello lab fosters interest in environmental toxicology

Healthier dietary habits may help decrease the risk of adverse health outcomes from exposure to common chemicals used for their nonstick and flame-retardant properties in consumer products such as food packaging and cosmetics.

Wayne State University School of Medicine medical student Stephanie Morgan studied exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, while working in the laboratory of Assistant Professor of Pharmacology Michael Petriello, Ph.D., who is also affiliated with WSU's Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Class of 2024 medical student Stephanie Morgan

“For me, the most interesting part of this research is discovering methods to mitigate the toxicity of environmental pollutants in ways that improve overall health and prevention of diseases,” Morgan said. “This is especially important to me in the context of our urban, industrial community and poor health status of our community members.”

“Effect of lifestyle-based lipid lowering interventions on the relationship between circulating levels of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances and serum cholesterol” was published in the March 2023 issue of “Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology.”

PFAS chemicals are used in a variety of consumer products, including food packaging, non-stick cookware, paints and cosmetics, as well as in military fire-fighting foams.

“Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to multiple adverse health outcomes, including increased circulating total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, both of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease,” said Morgan, who is the study’s first author.

Assistant Professor Michael Petriello, Ph.D.

The bio-behavioral lifestyle intervention study followed participants for six months in Lexington, Ky., where at the University of Kentucky Dr. Petriello previously completed his doctorate in 2015 and worked as a postdoctoral fellow from 2016 to 2019.

The participants incorporated a lipid-lowering lifestyle and dietary intervention. Researchers compared levels of PFAS at baseline with levels at the end of the intervention. The results showed decreased levels of total cholesterol in parallel with decreased levels of several PFAS chemicals after the intervention, as well as changes in PFAS-protein binding in serum after circulating lipid reduction.

The Petriello lab is working to understand the mechanisms that link nutrition and toxicology, which may lead to translatable prevention strategies to limit pollutant-induced metabolic disorders such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease, especially in at-risk populations.

Morgan reached out to Dr. Petriello in October 2020 interested in his environmental epidemiological studies. "Stephanie was a very hardworking and independent trainee and she brought a great positive attitude to our lab dynamic," he said. "Her hard work paid off as she was a recipient of a 2021 Medical Student Research Fellowship and recently had a manuscript published as first author."

Morgan joined the project in the summer of 2021.

“Opportunities to participate in this level of clinical research are hard to come by and finding the right fit with a lab group and principal investigator who share your interests and passions is even more difficult,” she said. “At the Wayne State University School of Medicine, we are fortunate to have lectures given by a multitude of professors and experienced researchers, all of whom are accepting and encouraging to medical student participation. Dr. Petriello has not only helped advance my skills as a researcher, he has also fostered my interest in environmental toxicology and supported my professional growth. The opportunity and responsibility that have been given to me through this research will without a doubt make me a better and more curious physician.”

To follow up, the team will investigate the mechanism behind the redistribution of PFAS among proteins associated with lipid-lowering health interventions.

“Additionally, as some individuals within the Detroit population have been shown to have elevated serum levels of PFAS, we plan to investigate associated adverse health outcomes in our community,” Morgan said.

In partnership with Henry Ford Health, the team also will examine associations of PFAS exposure with maternal perinatal gut microbiome alterations and adverse maternal-fetal outcomes, including low birth weight and pre-term birth.

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