Chemicals Often Found in Consumer Products Could Lead to Obesity and Fatty Liver Diseases, Baylor University Study Finds

  • Full-Size Image: Liver cells (bl...
    Liver cells (blue) accumulating lipids (in green). (Baylor University photo)
  • Full-Size Image: ES Ramon
    Ramon Lavado, Ph.D., assistant professor in environmental science at Baylor University (Baylor University photo)
  • Full-Size Image: Marco Franco
    Marco Franco, Baylor University doctoral candidate in environmental science (Matthew Minard/Baylor University)
  • Full-Size Image: maria-teresa
    Maria Teresa Fernandez-Luna, Ph.D., Baylor University lecturer in biology (Baylor University photo)
  • Full-Size Image: Alejandro Ramir...
    Alejandro Ramirez, senior mass spectrometrist in the Baylor Mass Spectrometry Center (Baylor University photo)
May 18, 2020

While poor nutrition and lack of exercise contribute to obesity, exposure to these compounds — especially in early years — could trigger lifelong susceptibility to weight gain

Contact: Terry Goodrich, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-644-4155
Follow us on Twitter: @BaylorUMedia

WACO, Texas (May 18, 2020) – Chemical compounds found in many consumer products could be major contributors to the onset of lipid-related diseases, such as obesity, in humans, according to a Baylor University study.

Until recently, scientists thought diseases such as obesity and fatty liver resulted from anomalies in the metabolism of lipids triggered by excessive energy intake, fat consumption and lack of physical activity. But the Baylor study, published in the international journal Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, highlights the existence of chemical compounds people are exposed to via a variety of consumer products. These can lead to lipid-related metabolic diseases and weight gain.

“Previous studies have provided strong evidence linking some hormone-like compounds to obesity in humans, but this is the first study that showed a cellular and metabolic effect on human cells exposed directly to those compounds,” said Ramon Lavado, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental science at Baylor.

Lavado’s team has been conducting experiments to determine whether their suspicion that obesogens — specific chemical compounds found to disrupt normal metabolic processes — promoted a dysregulation of lipid profiles in the human liver.

While poor nutrition and lack of exercise are known contributors to obesity, significant attention has emerged regarding the potential effects of some chemical compounds to trigger lipid-related diseases, Lavado said. Exposures to obesogens — particularly in early development in life — were found to disrupt normal metabolic processes and increase susceptibility to weight gain across the lifespan, he said.

As of the year 2000, there were an estimated 100,000 commercially available chemicals around the world. Two decades later, that amount has more than tripled, with approximately 350,000 chemicals being available, according to recent research published in Environmental Science & Technology.

Contributing chemicals to the diseases may be found in cigarette smoke, air pollution, pesticides, fungicides, flame retardants and a certain class of chemicals used in many consumer products to make them softer. Other contributors widely used in the past may have been industrial chemicals in paints, cements, fluorescent light ballast, sealants and adhesives.

For the study, Lavado said that he and his team used well-established techniques in the field of metabolomics and molecular toxicology to investigate whether the proportion of lipids related to diseases, such as obesity, was modified upon exposure to environmental obesogens — and if so, to what extent the lipid profile changed. Additionally, they used a technique called fluorescence microscopy to investigate whether environmentally relevant concentrations of the tested compounds had the ability to induce fat accumulation in liver tissue.

Study results indicated that the production of diglycerides and triglycerides increased significantly, while other less harmful lipids were found in smaller proportions, said Marco Franco, a Baylor doctoral candidate in environmental science in Lavado’s research group. Another novel finding was that those effects were observed in cells exposed to chemical concentrations that are often seen in the environment and to which people are exposed constantly.

This study is among the few that report molecular and physical changes at the cellular level, and the quantification of specific types of lipids that emerge as a result of chemical exposure, Lavado said.

“In the case of lipid profile alterations, the idea that chemical compounds may trigger and/or contribute to the development of lipid-related diseases deserves extensive research in the future,” he said.

Additionally, study results strongly support the use of animal alternatives with more human relevance as a valuable tool in the characterization of health effects caused by chemicals for which humans are often exposed but lack thorough toxicological data, Lavado said.

*In support of animal alternatives, the researchers utilized an in vitro system consisting of a human liver cell line that closely resembles the cellular and metabolic capacity of human hepatocytes and the liver itself.

*Study co-authors from Baylor are Ramon Lavado, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental science, Marco Franco, doctoral candidate in environmental science; Maria Teresa Fernández-Luna, Ph.D., lecturer in biology; and Alejandro Ramírez, senior mass spectrometrist in the Baylor Mass Spectrometry Center.

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 18,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

ABOUT THE COLLEGE OF ARTS & SCIENCES AT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University’s largest academic division, consisting of 25 academic departments and eight academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines. Visit baylor.edu/artsandsciences.

Looking for more news from Baylor University?