Subhrangsu Mandal’s concern about the unintended harm of technological advances has deep roots—back to his childhood home in rural West Bengal, India.
Dr. Mandal, now a UT Arlington assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, fondly recalls the area’s biological diversity and the hours he spent catching fish, frogs, and snails as a boy. Then he thinks of the toll that engineered, high-yield crops took in just a couple of decades.
“In order to produce large amounts of crops, people applied lots of fertilizers in the soil and lots of pesticides to protect the crops from the insects,” he says. “These excessive uses of pesticides and fertilizers certainly increased the crop production dramatically. But they also poisoned the land and water.”
Mandal wants to educate others about the risks to manipulating Mother Nature, and he’s working to learn what those risks are. The National Institutes of Health recently awarded him a three-year grant to examine chemicals in the environment that could upset normal hormone functions. These so-called “endocrine-disrupting chemicals” misregulate cell activity and could lead to the growth of certain cancers, specifically breast and prostate cancer.
“Almost everything in your body is controlled by hormones,” Mandal says. “Hormones control your development. Hormones control your mood. Hormones control your blood cholesterol. If there is a molecule that interferes with normal hormone function, it could have a very disruptive effect.”
Mandal’s research focuses on what happens when the signals sent to genes by the hormone estrogen are disrupted by exposure to a chemical compound like Bisphenol A. BPA, a known endocrine disruptor, has been in the news over worries that its use in plastics like food storage containers and baby bottles could harm humans. As part of the NIH grant, Mandal also plans to examine another known endocrine disruptor, Diethylstilbestrol. DES is a drug commonly used in the United States for about 60 years. Later, Mandal will look at growth hormones used in milk and meat production.
“Many of these things are used to produce meat and vegetables because they amplify growth,” he says. “People do not realize how it eventually can interfere with your normal endocrine pathways.”
Mandal was awarded another NIH grant for a proposal to explore how the biochemical mechanism of estrogen signaling is linked with blood cholesterol. Though NIH rules prevent him from accepting both grants, he will continue studying that project as well. Rasika Dias, chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, is impressed.
“To my knowledge, such situations are very rare, especially with junior faculty who are in the process of establishing themselves. Getting one project funded is hard enough in the present, highly competitive environment,” Dr. Dias says. “This shows that Dr. Mandal is doing cutting-edge, top-quality work and is a leading researcher in at least two different areas relevant to human health. He has many good, interesting ideas that are worth exploring as judged by his peers.”
Mandal’s interest in endocrine-disrupting chemicals sprang from his research into the functions of mixed lineage leukemia proteins. Those experiments—which he also is continuing—have shown that the proteins participate in hormone signaling and gene regulation and play a key role in the survival of cancer cells. He also is investigating epigenetic mechanisms—changes in the way genes are expressed—and their association with hormone signaling, endocrine disruption, and human disease, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Mandal hopes his work can help unravel the mysteries surrounding cancer cells’ survival and growth.