Ostrow researcher investigates environmental pollution’s contribution to birth defects

Jian Xu hopes to better understand the mechanisms behind environmental toxins increasing the occurrence of birth defects in order to develop new treatments or even prevent craniofacial birth defects.

NEARLY 120,000 BABIES WILL BE BORN with birth defects this year. 

While there are a number of causes — genetics and chromosomal issues, infections during pregnancy, maternal malnutrition and exposure to certain medicines, illicit drugs and alcohol — one well-documented cause is exposure to environmental pollution. 

In freeway-lined Southern California, an estimated 2.5 million residents live in high-pollution zones (defined as less than 1,000 feet of a freeway), potentially putting pregnant women at greater risk of birth defect than their rural counterparts. 

Assistant Professor Jian Xu has received a five-year grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research to better understand the link between environmental pollution and craniofacial defects, such as cleft lip and palate and skull deformity. 

“It is already known that environmental toxins increase the risk of birth defects, but how this happens and what population may be at a higher risk is not clear,” said Xu, the study’s principal investigator. “Findings from this study will identify risk factors and may propose new strategies to prevent or decrease the risk of birth defects for future family members.”

Using an animal model, Xu and her team will mimic the development of cleft palate and skull deformity by exposing research subjects, which have low levels of a specific enzyme, to environmental toxins — a phenomenon that has previously been shown by Xu’s team to lead to craniofacial defects. The investigators aim to identify key genes and pathways that are important to the increased risk.

“Based on our findings, we hope to propose strategies to prevent or decrease the risk of birth defects and inspire the development of novel therapeutic options,” Xu explained. 

Xu earned her bachelor’s degree from Peking University in Beijing, China and went on to earn a doctoral degree in pharmacology and cell biophysics from the University of Cincinnati/Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2006. She joined the Ostrow faculty in 2013. Her research focuses on how the dysregulation of certain signaling networks during development can lead to birth defects, tissue injury and human diseases. 

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