The group directed by Jordi Sunyer is part of the Research Centre for Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) and focuses on three research lines, which are based on general population studies. While two junior scientists analyze the effect of pollutants on the respiratory system and hormonal disruption, the main research of Jordi Sunyer himself focuses on the neurological development of children.
To breastfeed or not to breastfeed
Sunyer, who is the co-director of CREAL and also the director of the epidemiology and public health programme of the IMIM, seeks to point out environmental factors to which the pregnant woman was or is exposed, that have an effect on children during pregnancy and after birth. The studies start with the collection of biological samples from pregnant women and from their offspring after birth and are continued with follow up studies for several years.
These analyses include the characterization of toxic substances which the mother might have accumulated long before pregnancy, and which she passes on to the child through breastfeeding like in the case of organochloride compounds. Despite of the negative effect of passing on these toxic compounds, the positive effects of breastfeeding is not under discussion, the scientist explains with a calming smile.
Naturally, the mothers’ diet also plays a critical role on the child’s development, as well as environmental pollutants she or the newborn child might encounter in their surroundings. Therefore, in addition to the analysis of biological material, geographical data are being collected. “We model the entire city and, according to the movements of the participants, we know what type of pollution they could have encountered”, Jordi Sunyer states.
Indoor and outdoor pollutants
Indoor pollutants comprise smoking, but also some combustion sources used in the homes. Measurements of NO2, which is a marker of several pollutants, reveal that children from households using gas have a poorer neurodevelopment than those from households where electricity is used. The former children perform worse in neuropsychological tests like the McCarthy test, which employs puzzles, verbal stimuli or computer performance to score attention, inattention or even hyperactivity. Sunyer further advises that in households employing gas as a combustion source, an extraction hood should be used, and that children ought to be banished from the kitchen while cooking, since then the above mentioned effects are no longer observed.
These early life exposures, which start already at conception, show that the described phenotypes cannot be explained exclusively by means of genetics, but that the environment does indeed play an important role. However, the group also does analyse the regulatory mechanisms at the genetic level, in collaboration with the group of Xavier Estivill at the CRG.
The silent pandemic
“Environmental air pollution probably is the major pollutant in the developed world”, says Sunyer. “It is everywhere and you can not avoid it. A group in Harvard even refers to it as the silent pandemic”. According to this group the curve of IQ or neurodevelopmental performance of the whole society is downshifting because of the polluted environment. As a consequence, the number of children with problems in school performance increases and this is also related to an increase in hyperactivity. Therefore, the scientist concludes, “understanding the effect of air pollution on child health is a major goal for our group”.
This article was published in the El·lipse publication of the PRBB.
An interview published in Ellipse, the monthly magazine of the PRBB.
Andrea Cerutti is a 44-year old Italian ICREA research professor who joined the IMIM in 2010, after moving from Padua to New York. Here he leads the B-cell laboratory in parallel with his former lab at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. As an immunologist he aims to understand the basic principles underlying B-cell functions leading to the diversification of antibodies.
Why did you come to Spain?
After 14 years in the USA coming to Spain was not only a scientific, but also a very personal decision. I always felt like a European and wanted to come back. My timing might not have been the best, since I was doing quite well in the USA, while here it is difficult to get funding for our research.
What do the IMIM and the PRBB offer you?
Here we have a unique collaboration with the Hospital del Mar, allowing us access to precious human tissue samples. I also appreciate the scientific surroundings here at the PRBB which offer the possibility of interacting with scientists from many different disciplines.
Do you still do clinical work?
At some point in my career I had to make a decision and I opted for research. In order to work as a physician in the USA, I would have been forced to redo my specialist medical training, which would have taken far too long. I also wanted to continue doing competitive research, and combining work in the clinic and the lab is very difficult.
What has been your major discovery?
Our most important finding was the identification of the antibody-inducing function of the cytokines BAFF and APRIL, which are produced by cells of the innate immune system. This system was thought to be broad and unspecific, but we proved otherwise. BAFF and APRIL are molecules which activate B-cells, resulting in a switch of antibody subclass. This process was thought to happen exclusively in the much slower but more specific adaptive immune system via the interaction of B cells with T-cells. We have recently published the mechanism that explains how the bridging of the innate and adaptive immune systems takes place.
What would be your ideal goal in science?
It would be nice to understand the real nature of B-cell diversity: where they come from; why they have specific characteristics and how they react in different situations. It is known that the source of B-cells is the bone marrow and that some of these naïve precursors are already diverse. However we do not yet understand how and why some B cells produce one specific type of antibody class rather than another.
It would also be fantastic to find a way to develop prophylactic vaccines capable of providing broadly neutralising antibodies against HIV or influenza. Following this idea, one could imagine the creation of a “superantibody” capable of blocking virtually any strain of these continuously changing viruses. However, in order to achieve these goals we must first understand how specific subsets of B-cells work.
Coloring the formation of the skeleton
During the endochondral bone formation of vertebrates, the mesenchyme condensates and gives rise to cartilage which eventually is replaced by bone. In the picture performed by Ulrike Brandt-Bohne from the Genes and Disease Department of the CRG the bones of a newborn mouse are stained pink and the cartilages which are not ossified stained blue with an Alcian Blue/Alzizarin Red Skeletal Staining procedure. The aim of this staining was to visualize the skeletal structure of WT (wild type) versus mutant mouse models in order to detect changes in the skeletal morphology.