Into the lab: Polymer and Fiber Engineering

Ed Davis, faculty member in the Department of Polymer and Fiber Engineering, has received a two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how controlled release methods can be used to improve understanding of how mercury exposure affects brain development. Davis is collaborating with Chris Newland, faculty member in the Department of Psychology.

Mercury accumulation in fish, shellfish and animals that eat fish poses a significant potential human health risk, particularly in children and pregnant women. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration draft recommendation states that pregnant women should avoid eating tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico and all shark, swordfish and king mackerel.

According to Davis, mercury exposure in humans compromises the development of the central nervous system, particularly in the fetus during the last trimester of pregnancy. However, the mechanism and other details of this mercury toxicity remain largely unknown, as it is impossible to directly study the effects of mercury on human fetal development. Because the development of the central nervous system of a mouse up to 10 days after birth mimics late-stage fetal development of the human central nervous system, Davis is creating a nanocomposite that will enable sustained delivery of mercury to young mouse pups. This strategy will facilitate the steady, sustained mercury concentration typically observed in human fetuses exposed to mercury in utero. Thus, Newland and Davis will be able to duplicate the effects of prenatal human exposure to mercury, thereby revealing critical details of mercury toxicity in humans.

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