DecodExpo: How toxic metals affect human health

Project Title
Decoding the Role of Exposome in Endocrine Health

Article Author and Principal Investigator of the Project
Dr. Aleksandra Buha Đorđević

Associate Professor, University of Belgrade Faculty of Pharmacy

Dr. Aleksandra Buha Đorđević, Associate Professor, University of Belgrade Faculty of Pharmacy

In an era where there are so many visible and invisible threats to our health, our team started an investigation to unravel the complexities of how our environment affects our well-being. The project, Decoding the Role of Exposome in Endocrine Health (DecodExpo) financed by the Science Fund of the Republic of Serbia under the program PROMIS 2020, wanted to explore the complex connection between human health and exposure to toxic metals. Exposure to these metals is essential to the exposome, which is often overlooked but can significantly affect our well-being. If we imagine everything we encounter from birth until the end of life—every inhaled breath, consumed bite—we are thinking about exposome. Our health is the product of our genome and exposome and while we cannot alter our genetics, we do have the ability to influence and improve our exposome, and this could play a crucial role in maintaining good health and preventing disease in the future. Our research centered around a pressing issue: the increasing prevalence of endocrine disorders, which are conditions that disturb the body’s hormonal balance and result in various health issues like obesity, diabetes, reproductive disorders, and thyroid dysfunction. DecodExpo aimed to shed light on the impact of toxic metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and nickel in causing these disorders. People can be exposed to these toxic metals through everyday activities, such as consuming contaminated food and water, breathing polluted air, and using certain consumer products. Our goal was to contribute to scientific knowledge on how and why these chemicals produce effects on our endocrine system. We decided to investigate their mixtures in very low doses, mirroring real-life exposures lower than those deemed safe in studies with single chemicals, to better understand these mixtures’ subtle, combined effects on health, challenging the traditional safety thresholds paradigm. To do so, we took a comprehensive approach that involved conducting human biomonitoring studies, exposome-wide association studies, and research on experimental animals. Through our approach, we were able to assess the presence of harmful metals within various groups of participants from Serbia and explore their potential connection to hormonal imbalances.

We have discovered that even low everyday exposure to toxic metals can have a profound effect on metabolic, thyroid, and reproductive well-being. These findings raise concerns about the potential risks of developing various endocrine disorders. Research on animals has also shed light on these effects, revealing that extended exposure to combinations of metals, even in doses lower than those that humans are exposed to daily, can result in, for example, reproductive issues in female rats. Having in mind that the Dr.op in human fertility has been recognized worldwide by many researchers, these findings highlight the importance of raising awareness about the important role of chemical exposures in our reproductive health. Hence, taking preventive measures by introducing new public health policies should be considered crucial for safeguarding public health and reproductive well-being. With this in mind, we developed educational material for our general population that can help them make informative decisions about their lifestyle and health choices when it comes to reducing exposure to chemicals in everyday life.

Hence, I strongly believe that the impact of DecodExpo reaches a wide range of people. Our research provided information on the levels of these toxic metals in the blood of the general Serbian population placing us within the European average; however, giving us the clue that it remains essential to work on reducing these levels. These results are crucial for the development of national strategies and guidelines to effectively assess and manage health risks related to environmental exposures. Internationally, our work supports global efforts to recognize and combat the health effects of toxic metal exposures, advocating for a shift toward assessing the risks of chemical mixtures rather than single compounds with the goal of decreasing the prevalence of endocrine disorders worldwide.

The PROMIS program, of which the DecodExpo project was a part, was designed to support young researchers who have recently completed their doctoral studies and who, at that moment, lack their funding and research team. Its value lies precisely in empowering such researchers to develop their research ideas and set out on their unique journey. And this has happened to me. After obtaining these funds, I was able to establish my research team and enhance the capacity of my lab. I believe that the participation in DecodExpo project was important for the professional development and advancement of the research capacities of all project members. It provided opportunities for my team to engage in international conferences and meet the experts in the field. The results of the project were presented at many national and international conferences and some of the project’s findings were discussed at the 5th Annual Forum on Endocrine Disruptors organized by the European Commission. Science cannot be measured solely by quantitative parameters, or the number of awards received, yet I take pride in highlighting that more than ten papers have been published in renewed international journals, many of which are among the best in their field. In addition, I was honored with an award from the Intersectoral Centre for Endocrine Disruptor Analysis (ICEDA) with the Early Career Awardee for outstanding contribution, mainly based on my work on this project. The DecodExpo project also served as a catalyzer for new partnerships with fellow researchers and we have established collaborations with researchers from the University of Westminster, Kings College London, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and many more. It has also introduced new avenues for future research. Currently, in cooperation with the Clinic for Gynaecology and Obstetrics within the Clinical Centre of Serbia, we are conducting the first interventional study in Serbia devoted to perinatal environmental health education funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Studies, USA. Furthermore, based on the developed collaboration with Kings College London and together with the Clinical Hospital Center “Bežanijska kosa”, we are investigating the role of bisphenols in breast cancer, and this research is funded by Cancer Research UK. As we look to the future, I am excited about the prospects of expanding our research to explore the endocrine-disrupting effects of a wider range of chemicals like plasticizers and PFAS, diving deeper into their mechanisms. My journey so far has been incredibly rewarding, and I am eager for the discoveries that lie ahead, confident that our research could lead to transformative changes in public health and environmental safety.

Program for Excellent Project of Young Researchers – PROMIS

Project Budget
EUR 186,522

Scientific and Research Organization:
University of Belgrade, Faculty of Pharmacy

Project Team Members

  • Katarina Baralić, PhD Assistant, Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Belgrade
  • Dr. Dragana Javorac, Principal Research Fellow, Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Belgrade
  • Dr. Stefan Mandić Rajčević, Principal Research Fellow [1], University of Belgrade Faculty of Medicine/Dr.. Evica Antonijević Miljaković, Assistant Professor/Dr.. Đurđica Marić, Teaching Assistant, Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Belgrade,
  • Dr. Danijela Đukić-Ćosić, Full Professor, Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Belgrade,
  • Dr. Zorica Bulat, Full Professor, Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Belgrade

[1] Medicinski fakultet, Univerzitet u Beogradu, angažman u prvoj godini realizacije projekta


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