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Fidalgo, colleagues developing new sensor to test for endocrine disruptors

Maria Fidalgo head shot.

Maria Fidalgo, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, currently is working on a project called “A novel artificial hormone receptor for the sensing of total endocrine disruptor chemicals concentration in natural waters.”

A recent grant from the U.S. Geological Survey will aid an MU College of Engineering researcher and her colleagues in the development of a new process to identify potentially damaging chemicals in natural waters.

Maria Fidalgo, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, is teaming up with Susan Nagel of the MU School of Medicine’s Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health Department and Chung-Ho Lin of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Forestry Department on a project called “A novel artificial hormone receptor for the sensing of total endocrine disruptor chemicals concentration in natural waters.” The USGS grant will cover this year’s work, providing $44,000 for research expenditures.

The endocrine system regulates hormone levels in humans and includes the pituitary gland, pancreas, ovaries, testes, thyroid gland and adrenal glands and more. Certain contaminants in the water supply can affect the endocrine system by binding to hormone receptors, blocking natural hormones leading to problems with hormone regulation. Associated health issues include such things as obesity, diabetes, thyroid disease and hypothyroidism.

What Fidalgo, Lin and Nagel are working to accomplish is the creation of a test-strip sensor that uses artificial hormone receptors mimicking the ones naturally found in the human body. The concept is that contaminants in the water capable of disrupting the endocrine system would bind to these artificial receptors, allowing researchers to assess the danger of the water.

“We know all these other chemicals interfere with all these natural receptors. Our hypothesis is they will also interfere with our artificial receptors. So we can have a sensor that will not only capture the hormone itself, but all the other chemicals that are similar,” Fidalgo said.

Currently, testing involves searching for specific chemicals known to cause disruptions in the endocrine system. This creates the time-consuming problem of having to test for each individual chemical and the potential of missing chemicals not previously associated with the water source being tested.

“In order to measure that, currently, it’s quite complicated in terms of time and training and cost because the technique involves extraction of those natural receptors usually from animal tissue and you test the chemicals there,” Fidalgo explained.

The new process the trio hopes to create and perfect would be more universal, which would expedite the testing process.

“We want to simplify the measurement,” Fidalgo said. “Not just measuring all the ones we know combine, but also go to the water and say ‘OK, let’s see if there’s something in this water that can interfere with the endocrine system.’ It’s not important which exact chemical it is. We just want to know if it will eventually interfere.”