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Research links PBB exposure to DNA modifications

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Dr. Michele Marcus, professor of epidemiology and environmental health, has been studying the effects of polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) for 25 years. Her most recent findings show that PBB exposure is associated with epigenetic markers, which affect the way genes are expressed.

This research is based on the Michigan PBB Registry, which was established in the late 1970s to track the health of thousands of residents after PBB was accidentally mixed into livestock feed and sold to farmers throughout the state. By the time the mistake was discovered a year later, up to 90 percent of Michiganders had been exposed to PBB by eating contaminated meat, milk, and eggs.

Since she began studying this group, Marcus and her team have found many adverse health outcomes, including an increased risk of breast cancer among women with high PBB exposure.

For the current study, Marcus and her team tested blood samples of 658 PBB Registry study participants. They found that people with higher levels of exposure to PBB have common patterns of DNA methylation, which can change the way genes are expressed in ways that are similar to those caused by hormone exposure.

This is the first study to identify epigenetic differences that associate with exposure to PBB. It goes beyond characterizing health conditions in those exposed to PBB to identify molecular differences in their DNA.

“That means that we may be able to connect the biological dots between PBB exposure and hormone-related health effects,” says Marcus. “Our findings suggest that areas other than hormone functioning may be impacted by PBB exposure as well.”

The Emory research findings can help affected individuals and their doctors know more about what PBB does to the body while assisting in finding the best types of health care for their conditions.

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