Safeguarding the foundation of life
Almudena Veiga-Lopez, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Animal Science, is exploring the relationship between chemical exposures during pregnancy and their potential effects on children later in life.
In 1990, English epidemiologist David Barker arrived at a novel hypothesis after studying the effect of the Dutch famine endured by Scandinavian women and their children during World War II: The hardships endured by the mothers during pregnancy followed their children into adulthood, leaving them at greater risk of cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases. As other researchers began exploring Barker’s conclusions, a new field of study was born – the developmental origins of health and disease, or DOHaD.
Today, MSU AgBioResearch reproductive toxicologist Almudena Veiga-Lopez is pursuing a variation on Barker’s work. She is exploring the relationship between chemical exposures during pregnancy and their potential effects on children later in life.
“Anything that happens to your mom while she’s pregnant can change your risk for different diseases later in life,” said Veiga-Lopez, assistant professor in the MSU Department of Animal Science. “Everything around us is made of chemicals, and new ones are constantly being developed, so it’s important to understand their impact on one of life’s most fundamental processes – pregnancy.”
Veiga-Lopez takes a particular interest in the effects of manufactured chemicals, such as plastics and resins, and agricultural chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers. With funding from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences and the Society of Toxicology, her team is studying the impact of new chemicals, such as bisphenol S, commonly used in fast-drying glues and resins, on placenta development.
Her team uses sheep in their research because the animals’ docile temperaments allow them to be kept in low-stress, cage-free conditions, and because their 5-month gestation period is relatively close to that of humans and allows for longer-term studies that would be impossible in smaller mammals.
Through a catheter, Veiga-Lopez and her team can observe in real-time both the mother’s exposure and the fetus’s reaction to various treatments. This approach allows them to conduct dual-purpose studies, testing different nutrition programs to see if they can understand how nutrition prior to conception can affect the reproductive health of the animals.
“Our studies are aimed at improving human health, but nearly everything we learn can also be applied to livestock health on the farm,” Veiga- Lopez said. “We want to promote healthier lives [for humans and animals] by increasing the amount of knowledge we have about very common substances like plastics and resins, so that we can better assess the risks that come with them.”
Building the knowledge to help people and animals live better, healthier lives from their very beginnings, and passing that knowledge on to her students, drive Veiga-Lopez.
“This is my dream job,” she said. “I love just about everything I do here. We’re bridging agriculture and human health and passing that information on to help farmers, regulators and policymakers make better, more informed decisions.”
Q&A: Alumudena Veiga-Lopez
Title: Assistant professor, MSU Department of Animal Science
Joined MSU: 2014
Education: B.S., Cervantes Institute, 1995; DVM, Complutense University, 2000; Ph.D., National Institute of Agricultural Research, 2006
Hometown: Madrid, Spain
Influential or inspiring person: Vasantha Padmanabhan, my postdoctoral mentor at the University of Michigan.
On my bucket list: Travel to Japan and New Zealand.
Favorite vacation: Any place with mountains, water – rivers, lakes or the sea – and a book.
On a Saturday afternoon you’ll likely find me: Skyping with my family.
Best part of my job is: Mentoring students.
If I weren’t a researcher I’d be: A surgeon.
I went into this field of study because: As a veterinarian, I became increasingly interested in female reproduction and pregnancy and which factors can interfere with fertility and offspring health.
Something most people don’t know about me: We have four Holland Lop bunnies at home.
Books I’d recommend: My five best in the past year (all nonfiction): Red Notice, by Bill Browder; Hillbilly Elegy, by J. D. Vance; Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah; Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight; and American Kingpin, by Nick Bilton.
Words of advice to a young scientist: Be passionate about what you do and read a lot.
Favorite food: Arroz con bogavante (a Spanish dish with rice and blue lobster).
Research breakthrough I’d like to see happen in the next decade: Wireless electricity.
Person I’d most like to meet, living or dead: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit www.futuresmagazine.msu.edu. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 517-355-0123.